JAMES JOYCE WOULD KNOW Wild Beasts

Booty calls, pop
hooks, vagina-shaped Venn diagrams and a dirty old Irish author.

 

BY MERYL TRUSSLER & JENNIFER KELLY

 

You can’t be on the fence about Britain’s Wild Beasts. You either
love them or hate them.

 

The band layers huge swooning vocals – that’s frontman
Hayden Thorpe giving the Darkness’ Justin Hawkins a scare – over jittery
tangles of funk-into-post-punk guitar, bass and drums. The songs are oddly
structured, without easily identifiable verses or choruses. They sputter with
complicated multi-syllable words and refuse to stick to standard pop subject
matter.

 

“I think being hated has definitely taken some getting used
to,” says Thorpe, when asked about the strong reaction to the band’s 2008 debut
Limbo, Panto (Domino; previously
reviewed
by BLURT). “But when you love something that you have to defend… I’d
rather be in that band than a band
that doesn’t really impress or offend
people. I’d far rather be in a band that is unselfconscious and bold.”

 

The band takes its name from another group of artistic
provocateurs, the early 20th century Fauve painters led by Henri Matisse and
Andre Delrain. Parallels between the artists’ intense colors and the Wild
Beasts’ hyper-emotive style can certainly be drawn, but Thorpe says the real
connection is the combination of craft and daring. “Their philosophy was viewed
as outrageous and distasteful almost, but in time, the things that were
challenging or audacious were recognized as art.” 

 

These affable Beasts have dangled in relative obscurity
awhile, ensnared by their own eccentricities and perversions – but looking at
that flimsy obstacle now, in the light of sophomore album Two Dancers… nah, that ain’t gonna hold. Whatever estranged
potential listeners before – the incredibly peculiar caw of Thorpe, the dusty
theatricality, or the sticky feeling of lust all over Limbo, Panto – well, it’s all still there. But it is a mere context,
an affectation, thin and brittle as the sugarcap on crème brulée, and you will
be severely missing out if you don’t tap and break through to the heart of Two Dancers.

 

Because because because:
because they’ve kept and refined their pretty ways, their guitars that whirr
and interlock, cymbals hammering bright and clean, and the lyrical oil that
drips through all the workings.

 

Where Limbo, Panto‘s “The Devil’s Crayon” was really its
only track that dazzled from within a standard pop structure, this new record
casts out hook after hook after hook, with their various weirdnesses hanging
ornamentally from the beats; a giant’s mumbly harmony here, a MIDI harp there.
And yes, those words. Like only a few artists before them – Parenthetical Girls
and Joanna Newsom coming immediately to mind – Wild Beasts seem to fit quite
snugly in that Venn-diagram overlap between lyric and bona fide poetry. (And
would likely be the first to acknowledge that overlap’s looking sorta like a
vagina.)

 

When Thorpe whips out his syllables it is the very opposite
of speaking in tongues; it sounds like pure, rhythmic gibberish but turns out
to be words, like in the effervescent “Hooting and Howling”: “a crude art, a
bov-ver boot bal-let / equal-ly eleg-ant and ug-ly”. Count in the smattered
archaisms of fisticuffs and being “bereft
of a coffin-bearer
“, and it’s like dirty old J. Joyce is alive and well and
singing in an indie band.

 

And lest this sounds too frivolous, lines like “this is a booty call / my boot, my boot, my
boot, my boot, your asshole”
aside – there are moments of real, liquid
beauty here. Half that beauty drains directly to the sinkhole of “Two Dancers
(i)”, one of those rare love-at-first-listen tracks: equal parts tense and
tender, with drums that thump ‘n’ drive, and great swathes of guitar almost
like fallout from Explosions in the Sky. It drives us out to the end of the
critic’s Earth, where our words fail and fall. We must instead stand here
tongue-tied and impotent, watching that infernal Thorpe and his companions keep
on scrawling quips and quavers out into the stars. As he squalls in the closing
“Empty Nest”: “going, going gone” –
leaving us to end our commentaries with, what? What words are there? James
Joyce would know.

 

The members of the Wild Beasts grew up in England’s Lake
District, in a peaceful and unmusical farming community called Kendal.  Existing outside any sort of scene, the band
was free to come up with its own sound, drawing on the wordplay of Leonard
Cohen, the funkiness of Michael Jackson, the sheer eccentric individuality of
Kate Bush.  “A lot of artists we admire
lack self-consciousness. They’re willing to bare themselves and take risks,”
Thorpe says. “By being bold, you make yourself vulnerable at the same time.”

 

And as for being out of step with a music industry that
changes minute by minute, chasing the ephemeral sound of now? “If we were
making music that struck a chord, if we did all the right things for right here
and now, we might be right for six months time,” says Thorpe.

 

“We want to make our artistic statement,” he adds, with a
note of determination. “We want to make heads turn. We think that will pay off
in time.”

 

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