What became of the likely lads (Part II).
The general consensus holds that "Up The Bracket", the debut Libertines album, is better and more consistent than its self-titled followup, and I for one am inclined to agree. It's no surprise, either. After all, when it was recorded, The Libertines were just breaking into the public eye (debut single "What A Waster" had taken England by storm, but they hadn't recorded anything else yet), and Pete Doherty was still relatively in control. What's easy to forget in view of all this is just how strong a role Carl Barat played in the sound of The Libertines on "Up the Bracket", taking lead vocal on several of the album's strongest tracks, including "Vertigo", "Boys In the Band", and "I Get Along". His voice is similar to Doherty's and they sing in the same register, so it can be hard at first to tell them apart. The best way I can describe the difference is that Carl's voice has more of a jaunty, Frank Sinatra-ish swagger to it, while Pete's is a rougher, throatier croon. The song "Death On The Stairs" is the best one to listen to in order to hear the difference; Carl sings the first verse and chorus, and Pete takes over just before the 1:30 mark and sings the rest of the song. The sound of The Libertines on "Up The Bracket" has its base in early British punk bands, such as The Jam and The Clash, then mixes in a wide range of British musical influences from many different eras; everything from the more laddish end of the British Invasion (The Kinks, The Small Faces) and their Britpop descendents ("Parklife"-era Blur foremost among them) to music-hall singalongs and Gilbert & Sullivan pastiches (which conjures visions of Monty Python's Flying Circus in American minds, but probably seems more connected to childhood visits to Grandma and Grandpa's house for British youth). There's some division from song to song, in fact; Carl's songs are closer to early punk and rockabilly, while Pete's songs are more likely to dip into traditional British pub chants.
Since "Up The Bracket", Pete has taken center stage in any discussion of The Libertines, and we all know why: drugs jail theft rehab Thailand Kate Moss Mick Jones blah blah... you've heard it all before. By the time of "The Libertines", two years after "Up the Bracket", Pete had been in and out of the band several times, was regularly missing shows and even entire tours, and appeared to be slipping over the edge and taking The Libertines down with him. The cover of their second album is a poignant reflection of this situation; on it, Carl looks into the camera, while Pete is distracted, pulling up his sleeve to stare at his arm and looking all but poised to jab a needle into it. Despite all of that, and despite the fact that "The Libertines" doesn't quite measure up to its predecessor, there are still some brilliant songs on it. The album is bookended by "Can't Stand Me Now" and "What Became of the Likely Lads", both songs in which Carl and Pete trade lines back and forth, arguing over the precarious situation they're in. To someone not aware of the tabloids, "Can't Stand Me Now" might sound like a couple on the verge of breaking up but trying desperately to keep things together. However, in light of events at the time, hearing Carl sing, "Your light fingers through the dark shattered the lamp and into darkness cast us", and Pete reply, "No, you've got it the wrong way round, you shut me out and blamed it on the brown" gives a definite idea of what they're arguing about. The chorus appears to indicate reconciliation, as both sing "I'm still in love with you", but "What Became of the Likely Lads" paints a different picture. Carl's set to "forgive [Pete] in a song", but he's also skeptical: "If it's left to you, I know exactly what you'd do with all the dreams we had." In his response, Pete lets cynicism rule the day: "If you pipe all summer long, then get forgiven in a song, that's a touch, my lad. They sold the rights to all the wrongs, and when they knew you'd give me songs, welcome back, I sang." If I'm not mistaken, this is an accusation that Carl's only still around so he can make money off The Libertines' name. But hey, who knows? One thing's for sure, other than his role as the scolding friend on these songs, Carl's presence is minimal on "The Libertines". Out of 12 other songs on the album, he sings lead on only two. One of these, rock n' roll barnburner "The Narcissist", is a highlight of the album, and flows directly into Pete's "The Ha Ha Wall", which is just as good, though much more pop-oriented. The success or failure of the rest of the album is in Pete's hands, however, and depending on the song, he's got plenty of both. "The Man Who Would Be King" is contemplative in feel, but also contains a bouncy singalong chorus, and "The Saga" rocks just as hard as "The Narcissist", but "Arbeit Macht Frei" is a much less distinctive and more tossed-off attempt at punk, and "Don't Be Shy" is so sloppy and disorganized that what could have been a catchy tune is completely squandered.
And of course, we all know where things went from there. The Libertines finally disbanded at the end of 2004, and since then, Pete's hit the tabloids running, both with his high-profile drug-addled fling with Kate Moss and with his numerous drug-related arrests (over a dozen in the past 18 months). In his favor, he's also been much quicker on the draw where music is concerned. About six months ago, I reviewed the first three Babyshambles EPs in this very blog, and I stand by what I wrote at the time, about the A-sides showing quite a bit of promise. Of course, I also said that the second Libertines album was better than the first one, which I have changed my mind on, as you can see above. I think, when I wrote that, it had just been too long since I'd listened to "Up The Bracket". I also talked a bit in that review about why I'm much more on Carl Barat's side where the breakup of The Libertines is concerned. After all, he continued to work with Pete after the guy robbed him, only giving up on The Libertines after every other possibility had been exhausted. With Pete releasing Babyshambles records first, though, I was at least somewhat worried that he'd steal all the attention. And so far he has; I've heard very little concerning Dirty Pretty Things, while Babyshambles has already been the subject of profiles in big music magazines. Granted, the Rolling Stone profile was all about how Pete's the worst drug casualty since Sid Vicious, which they found all the more tragic because he actually has talent; for the record, I agree completely with this assessment. It's still felt like the uncaring asshole of the Libertines saga has been the one to reap all of the rewards, while the good guy has finished last.
It's time for all that to change, though. Dirty Pretty Things' "Waterloo To Anywhere", as I stated back at the beginning of this long spiel, is as good as, if not better than, anything else to ever come out of the extended dysfunctional family that is The Libertines and its offshoots. To be specific, it's at least as good as "Up the Bracket", and better than "The Libertines". It'd be unfair to compare it to Babyshambles' previous EPs, but with my recent acquisition of "Down In Albion", I don't have to anymore. And in comparison to "Waterloo To Anywhere", "Down In Albion" stands out as being both twice as long and half as good. If "Waterloo" is the best thing either Carl or Pete has ever done, then "Albion" is without a doubt the worst. That's not to say it's bad--it's not. In fact, the first half of the album is actually quite good. Single tracks "Fuck Forever" and "Kilamangiro" are both here, though with the second in a quite inferior rerecorded version. In fact, the new version of "Kilamangiro" presents an excellent microcosm for the entire album. To wit, there are great ideas here, but their execution is quite lacking. "Kilamangiro" is still an excellent song, but Pete doesn't sound like he gives a flying fuck about it anymore. There's a really powerful section in the original version, just after the second chorus, where the music drops into a quiet, vamping bridge, and Pete sings, "On the off chance that you're listening to the radio, I thought you might like to know you broke my heart!" He sings this so powerfully that the emotion bleeds from the speakers, and it's become my favorite moment in Babyshambles' recording career so far. In the recorded version, he tosses off the line without much of any feeling at all, and goes so far as to ruin it completely by singing the last section as "I thought you might like to know la da da da..." What the fuck? Way to ruin the song, Pete. This makes me wonder what Mick Jones, supposedly producing the sessions, was doing when Pete decided to sing the song this way. Lines of coke, perhaps?
There are plenty of great moments on the first half of "Down In Albion" that aren't ruined by questionable artistic/production choices, though. Opening track "La Belle et la Bete", Pete's tribute to celebrity (ex-)girlfriend Kate Moss, shows real growth as a songwriter on his part. It's over five minutes long, and a jazzy vamp for the most part, but still stays interesting and has a catchy chorus. The more rocking side of Babyshambles comes out on new tracks like "Pipedown" (as in "Paddy, put the..."), which has a reggae lilt on the verses but hits hard on the chorus, and the almost indie-rock "8 Dead Boys". However, the whole thing flies right off a cliff when it reaches track 10, "Pentonville" an acoustic guitar dancehall toasting number that sticks out like a sore thumb and isn't any more fun. The first time you hear it, you wonder if it's a joke, and stick around waiting for the punchline. After that, though, you'll reach for the skip button when it comes along.
You may do just as well to reach for the eject button. Once you stop listening to "Pentonville" when it comes up, it's much easier to notice that "In Love With A Feeling" and "What Katy Did Next" are nearly identical midtempo melodic vamps. "Albion" is a ballad, and a good one, but would have sounded much better if it were sequenced between two more upbeat rockers. By this point in the album, though, Pete's squandered all his rockers on the first half, and doesn't really have any left. The final four songs on the album continue with the alternation between mellow, midtempo tracks and acoustic ballads, and by the end, you're so bored that the gems towards the beginning are but a distant memory. The reviewer who wrote about this album on allmusic.com made the depressing assessment that "'Down in Albion' just keeps going and going, loaded with so many half-baked songs that it almost feels like a posthumous collection that was enterprisingly released before Doherty actually died." As sorry as I am to say it, this pretty much hits the nail on the head. Let's hope he can pull out of the tailspin he's in eventually, and start creating at a consistent level.
In the meantime, this is the perfect time to put on "Waterloo To Anywhere" and blow the cobwebs out of your mind. Having Carl and Pete in two different bands makes it obvious which elements of The Libertines' sound each were more responsible for. With the British laddisms and midtempo music-hall bounciness nearly taking over the Babyshambles album, it follows that the punkabilly stomp will be heavily represented on the Dirty Pretty Things album. Sure enough, opening track "Deadwood" kicks off with a few seconds of studio chatter and a quiet guitar intro, then bang! right into the rocking. At two and a half minutes, it's one of the shortest songs here, but the longest, "This Enemy", is only three and a half minutes, so one thing that's certain is that there'll be no meandering ballads here. Instead, Dirty Pretty Things whip through a dozen garage-punk tunes in about 37 minutes, sounding well-rehearsed and at the top of their game. Perhaps waiting a year has helped them, in that it gave them time to refine their sound. Despite reports that Carl originally signed to his current label as a solo artist, and that Dirty Pretty Things have only been together for 8 months or so at this point, these are mostly people he's worked with before. Drummer Gary Powell is a holdover from The Libertines, and guitarist Anthony Rossomando was the fill-in guitarist when The Libertines completed their last couple of tours without Pete Doherty. The only truly new collaborator is former Cooper Temple Clause bassist Didz Hammond, who makes a powerful impression almost immediately. His basslines are the highlight of "Bang Bang You're Dead" and "Last of the Small Town Playboys." Indeed, the latter is structured around deft interplay between Hammond and drummer Powell, who carry the verses of the song with a stuttering funk rhythm that's one of the most danceable moments here.
The entire album pushes you to get up out of your chair and rock out, though. Debut single "You Fucking Love It" blows by at breakneck speed, lasting just under two minutes and making much more judicious use of a titular curse word than did Babyshambles' gratuitous "Fuck Forever"--not to mention that it's a better song. "The Gentry Cove" also blows away its' Babyshambles counterpart, mixing rimshot reggae verses with an upbeat chorus in a manner much more reminiscent of the best reggae-influenced Clash tracks than the ridiculous "Pentonville" or even the much better "Gang of Gin" (by the way, why wasn't that on "Albion"? It's better than 2/3 of the tracks that made the cut). "Waterloo To Anywhere"'s best track, though, is its centerpiece, "Gin and Milk". On the verses, Carl's jangly guitar strumming and Anthony's more gain-heavy slashing egg each other on as Didz's octave-jumping bassline bounces circles around both. They come together on the choruses, though, as Carl's passionate vocals crank up the tension. By the final one, he sounds ready to break, proclaiming "No one's too perturbed about the things that I would cry for. I've tried all my life until there's nothing left to try for." "Give me something to try for!" he begs, and the song ends with all four Dirty Pretty Things slamming the hell out of their instruments in a repetitive pound, overtop of the sound of an explosion.
This is the kind of thing I'm looking for every time I put on a record, this all-consuming passion translated into music and thrown out into the world as if the performer's life depends on it. The Libertines always seemed like they had the potential to deliver, but never quite did, coming closest on "Up The Bracket" tracks like "I Get Along" ("I keep singing my song, people tell me I'm wrong... Fuck em." Interestingly enough, this was a Carl Barat song), and slipping farther away on their followup. Babyshambles is the farthest away yet, giving us the sound of a young drug addict at play, convinced of his immortality, even as it seems obvious to everyone watching that his days are numbered. Carl Barat, on the other hand, seems all too aware of just how mortal he is, having watched himself get forgotten and passed by over the last couple of years, even as the popularity of The Libertines ostensibly grew to its greatest heights. Tellingly, an allmusic review of one of their records compares Pete's voice to that of The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, the reviewer blissfully unaware that it's Carl who sings the song he's talking about. Carl has proven that he's just as deserving of recognition as Pete, and for more honest reasons; Pete might make better headlines, but, at least these days, Carl makes better records, and that's what should really count. Hopefully "Waterloo To Anywhere" will put him back on the map, and hopefully he and the rest of the Dirty Pretty Things will keep making records even if it doesn't.