Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

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This album doesn’t make a lot of sense. The debut was explosive. Arctic Monkeys didn’t sound like they wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but they sounded like they were really into the Dance-Punk thing. The band sounded so energetic it’s like they couldn’t notice they forgot to write a song in “From the Ritz to the Rubble”.

Although the album opens with an explosive track that does sound stormy, the album doesn’t have the spark of the debut. Instead of honing their craft, they’re just going through the motions and kicking danceable Indie Rock. There’s talent and hooks, but the lack of spirit makes it hard to react to this strongly.

The main difference between this album and the debut is that this one has no concept. Whatever knew it was a Dance-Punk album and had lyrics that described that party environment with humor and wit. Favourite Worst Nightmare is a fun collection of songs that are great when they’re closer to their debut and weaker when they move further way. There’s also a fantastic ballad thrown in.

The band sounds lost on the more melodic/casual tracks like “If You Were There” or “Balaclava”. They were at their best when making sonic mayhem. On these tracks they’re turning it down but not replacing the noise with anything. There’s not much going in these tracks. On “Balaclava” Turner becomes annoying, speaking in a smug way rather than singing. Even “Flourscent Adolescent” doesn’t work. There is melodic beauty buried somewhere behind the vocals, but Turner refuses to commit to one style. He doesn’t decide whether to rap, sing or sing-rap like Astronautalis. The result is a Pop song without a melody.

Even the harder tracks feel like something is missing. The instrumental storm of “Brianstorm” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a party. It’s more artistic, trying to capture the song’s title rather than to start a mosh pit. It’s still effective though. Other tracks have some explosive hooks – “D Is for Dangerous”, “This House is a Circus” and “The Bad Thing” are all rocking. Something in the production does feel flat, nothing in these tracks compares to the mayhem of “Fake Tales” or “I Bet You Look Good”.

I can’t tell whether it’s the production or the band itself. The melodies work in the same way. There’s no change in focus. It’s still sharp, aggressive melodies with noise behind them. “D is for Dangerous” is their most danceable song, actually. Perhaps it’s the production, which is cleaner, more pleasant. It works in some tracks, but it makes these ones sound less party-ready.

There are two odd successes here. “Only Ones Who Know” is a beautiful ballad. It’s different from “Riot Van”. That one still had the lyrics about wild life of the night. The musical backdrop was different but it stuck to the concept. “Only Ones Who Know” is truly tender, with Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s putting on an act. There are whole bands basing a career on making such songs. If only Adele or Coldplay knew that great ballads work because they don’t try to attract attention. That song never explodes and always remains quiet. If it did, it’d undo its beauty.

The ambitious “Do Me a Favour”. It’s the most ambitious track here, building towards a conclusion and letting every band member contribute. “505” also does the build-up thing, but it’s a familiar end-of-album ballad that’s too ordinary to get a reaction. “Do Me a Favour” sounds like a deliberate attempt to write a great break-up song and it’s a success. The drums create tension all the way it explodes with telling someone to fuck off.

At its heart, this is just an ordinary Indie Rock album. If it was released by any band it probably wouldn’t gain any hype. It’s pretty consistent, has some great songs for a playlist but that’s it. That said, it’s a terrible album to listen to for your first album by the band. Since all they do is just kick songs, it might leave you confused on what the big deal is. Actually, that’s all they ever did – just kick catchy Pop Rock with a charismatic singer. You don’t need more than that to become popular.

3 nightmares out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

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It’s amazing what cultural differences can do. This was apparently a pretty big deal in the UK. It had something to do with how Pop music dominated the charts, or that it gave a voice to macho dudes who only want to pick up girls in the club (but liked guitars), or that they gained their success via word of mouth. I’m here, listening to it 9 years after it came out. I can tell it’s big, but not really why.

It sounds like it has a mission statement, but what it states is different than everything I heard. You can’t rely on historical context for too long. Eventually there will be a generation who never heard those Pop bands you knocked off the charts. They might even like them. They will care more whether the files they got from iTunes are worth doing air-guitar to or singing along to.

The album is a Dance-Rock album. It’s not about creativity or delivering a message or being weird. It tries to do the same thing Glam Metal, later Nickelback albums and Dance-Punk artists like !!! and Test Icicles do. It wants to throw a party with guitars.

The lyrics are more sophisticated than your average Glam Metal track. They swing from trying too hard to sharp. “Fake Tales” is fantastic. It’s a great attack on people who go on and on how cool other countries are. The irony is, in Israel you can switch “San Fransico” with “London”. This just shows how the message is more than just for the locals.

“You Probably Couldn’t See” is another bomb. Turner makes fun of the guys and how they all change their behavior with hopes of impressing a woman. It describes word-for-word every social situation I’ve seen where there was an attractive female there. Even the guys who claimed they’re not into it were influenced. It’s the best song the album.

While these songs give the impression that the band is a vehicle for Turner’s lyrics, it’s not. They’re just seasoning that makes these songs better, but what drives them are guitar riffs, hooks and hard drums.

Turner is a great vocalist. While he can come off as too smug (Especially on “Still Take You Home” where he’s your typical douchebag who has sex with girls he dislikes) he also easily captures an air of coolness. He sounds both smart and hedonistic, like a person who can have fun at a rock club and later make articulate arguments about the last book he read.

He never drowns out the band. In fact, they often threat to drown him. The playing is so energetic and full of life. “I Bet You Look Good” opens with what sound like Metalcore riffs. The band sounds like it’s dying to slam. On “When the Sun Goes Down” it sounds like Turner is trying to keep up.

What makes the band so good is that they know what they’re doing. This is party rock. It exists to be catchy, energetic, to slam and to sing along to. That’s why the moshpit-friendly sections in “I Bet You Look Good” don’t feel too out of place. It’s impressive how the album never runs out of steam. The last two tracks are slightly weaker, but almost everything before it sticks to the concept and never lets up.

There are a few cuts that try to tone down the noise. Only “Riot Van” succeeds, and it’s a surprising one. It only has Turner and some guitar strumming in the back, but it’s beautiful. It comes right in the middle, the right time for a small break. This is the tracks that they will draw inspiration from in their second breakthrough.

Ignore all the people who talk about what it was like when it first came out. This album still sounds great now. It’s a party rock album where the riffs are energetic, the hooks are catchy and everyone sounds like they’re really into it. It even has some cool lyrics that prevent it from sounding moronic but rarely too smug. It’s everything a party rock album should be.

3.5 fake tales of san francisco out of 5

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5