While you may not have heard the music of England's Arctic Monkeys, you've almost certainly heard of them by now. Not since, oh, The Strokes or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has a band received so much ink for so little recorded product. But where the hype for those two New York acts played out a little nearer to the underground, Arctic Monkeys are everywhere, including all of your favorite supermarket checkout line magazines and the top of the British charts. Yet despite arriving with twice the hype, this debut only carries half the impact of what those aforementioned acts brought on their initial go-'rounds.
Much of the praise for the Monkeys is heaped on 20-year-old singer/guitarist Alex Turner, whose lyrics have been compared to luminaries like Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker by the hyperbolic. Which is poppycock, even if it does perhaps get us thinking that we generally listen to Karen O. and Julian Casablancas more for the sounds of the words leaving their mouths than the words themselves, which isn't the case with young Alex and his heavy street accent. More importantly, we dig those bands because they left us whistling their tunes within a handful of listens.
But these Arctic Monkeys? As the one-time Smiths frontman once put it, their biology needs to catch up with their mentality. Or their riffs with their rants. Or their chops with their chattiness. Whichever and whatever, the band wisely chose its catchiest song, the banging, vaguely metallic "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," for release as its first single late last year. It's a kicking little number, all drums and guitar and a tale told of a right fit lass catching the singer's eye, getting the boy all hepped up and hopped up and leaving him struggling to control himself and keep up with his bandmates as the song verges into controlled chaos. Second single "When the Sun Goes Down," however, faces the problem of being one of a half dozen or so rather indistinguishable tracks on Whatever People Say, with a quiet opening and close sandwiching a rollicking, faintly funky tune and a lament about a woman of the streets and one of her deplorable johns.
It's hard to shake the suspicion that the Monkeys have adopted the funk influence not so much out of any affinity for the style or ability to pull it off but to keep up with the Franzes, who seem to be having such a lurvely Party down the Bloc. But where those two bands hit you in the body and brain alike, the bulk of the Monkeys' music delivers a so-so groove with few merry memorable melodies. Despite dozens of listens, much of Whatever People Say congeals together like so much spent gravy, with only the clever couplets sticking out.
But when the lyrical lines are good, they're very good indeed. The pursuit of teenage kicks predominates throughout the album, from the horniness of "Still Take You Home" ("It's ever so funny, I don't think you're special I don't think you're cool/ You're just probably alright, but under these lights you look beautiful") to the romantic clumsiness of "You Probably Couldn't See for the Lights but You Were Staring Straight at Me" ("Everybody's trying to crack the jokes and that to make you smile/ Those that claim that they're not showing off are drowning in denial") through to the outside-looking-in vibe of "From the Ritz to the Rubble" and "Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure." But stripped of their vocals, only the slinky "Red Light" would be described as delish in a blind taste test.
Yet the Monkeys are surprisingly good when they try a little tenderness. The clean guitar whispers and church organ tones of "Riot Van" make for a gentle lament, a resigned Turner describing a scene of bored punters who come across the wrong cops and take a kicking and a night in the clink for their youthful insubordination. Saving the best for last, the album closes with the highly accomplished "A Certain Romance," which has the stuff that genius is made of and generations are defined by. A dramatic instrumental opening brings the Sturm und Drang before cresting and breaking into an easy jaunt, only to find the players returning to the cacophony near song's end not the most original of tricks, but evidence of an attention to craft and imagination found too infrequently on this debut. Wordwise, the track is a brilliant addition to the long tradition of humdrum-town-as-lyrical-fodder for Brit rockers that stands up with the best of Ray Davies, Paul Weller and whoot, here it is! Morrissey.
If there's a more sadly 2006 observation than Alex Turner's quip in the album-closing number about how "There's only music so that there's new ringtones," I have yet to hear it. Here's hoping that the band will return next time around with some more ringtone-worthy tunes.