A British invasion? That might be pushing it. For starters, much of Britain’s “new-sound” is so stubbornly non-commercial that its growing popularity in America is due more to word of mouth and adventurous late-night use of KaZaA than any kind of hostile takeover. Even following the recent MTV-manufactured “return to rock,” the American airwaves remain inaccessible to British bands and cluttered with the bratty, pseudo-garage sounds of Sum 41, or the glam pop-rock of Nickelback and Creed.
Even among indie fans, British rock has fallen at the feet of white-hot American groups like The Strokes and The White Stripes. Fans at Starsailor’s San Francisco stop on the group’s debut U.S. tour drowned out lead singer James Walsh with demands that the band cover The Strokes’ hit single, “Last Nite.” The recent release of Mick Jagger’s album Goddess in the Doorway and the re-release of “My Sweet Lord” following George Harrison’s death have recalled images of British rock and roll in its heyday and at the same time served as reminders of just how far British rock has come since its golden age.
Riding singer-songwriter James Walsh’s tremulous vocals, Starsailor has won acclaim in England as the “next Radiohead” and has even attracted premature comparisons to everybody’s favorite four-man British boy band, the Beatles. To be sure, the group’s sound is deeply rooted in rock-and-roll history. Named after folk-star Tim Buckley’s 1970 album Starsailor, the Manchester foursome bear the noticeable influence of Buckley’s better known contemporaries Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Nick Drake. Their sound also owes something to the more modern British indie sounds of groups like The Charlatans (for whom Starsailor is now opening in their first U.S. tour).
The group’s debut album Love is Here weaves these diverse influences into an acoustically pleasing and lyrically complex collection of potential singles. Walsh’s haunting voice reverberates in the eleven poignantly personal tracks. The band provides support, and at times respite, with time for reflection on Walsh’s powerful lyrics.
Critics have disparaged Starsailor for lacking originality and not challenging the boundaries of modern rock and roll. While such claims are not unfounded, they do not detract from what the group does very well. If Starsailor’s music is rooted firmly in the past, it cannot be denied that the group has made great strides towards mastering—even refining, perhaps—the forms they emulate.
But the real beauty of Starsailor’s music is its at times brutal sincerity. The listener cannot help but feel that Walsh’s words are inextricably tied up with his personal experience. Middle-class angst is apparent in songs like “Talk Her Down,” “Alcoholic” and “She Just Wept,” with lines like “Daddy I’ve got nothing left/ My life is good/ My love’s a mess.”
Amidst the hoopla surrounding Starsailor’s quick rise to stardom, it is easy to forget that Walsh is only 21 years-old. Starsailor’s future is bright, and, lest the vulturous critics forget, there will be plenty of time for innovation.
In 1990, twin brothers Jez and Andy Williams and their friend Jimi Goodwin formed Sub Sub, playing disco-club tunes and garnering great success with their single “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use).” However, despite the group’s efforts to explore new sounds, they could not break their typecast as a disco-club group. While Sub Sub matured musically, its audience didn’t. In a desperate move, the three eventually decided to change their name and scrap their history.
So Doves was born. The band’s debut album, Lost Souls, is a rich collection of acoustic guitar and stirring vocals. Yet, despite the album’s melodramatic title and the group’s troubled past, Lost Souls is a nuanced album that does not fall into the irritating whining of misery-rock. The wispy guitars and vocals play games with each other in the seven-and-a-half minute ballad “Cedar Room.” “The Man Who Told Everything” seems to stand for the group’s naked honesty about its experiences, while also reflecting the band’s confidence that there are “blue skies ahead.” The group confirms this confidence in “Here it Comes,” proclaiming “Here comes my day in the sun.” Like Coldplay, a solid follow-up performance would solidify Doves as a fixture in not only the British, but also the American rock scene.
In many respects, Coldplay has faced many of the same criticisms as Starsailor—the curse of the suburban middle-class band—but critics cannot take away what the group has already accomplished. Parachutes, the debut album of the foursome who met as students at University College, London, has already won substantial fame in England and the U.S. And rightly so—Parachutes is an album loaded with twisted and complex emotions. It is strikingly simple, even disturbing, because of this raw simplicity. In the group’s first U.S. single, “Yellow,” Martin admits “For you I’d bleed myself dry.” And in “Shiver,” Coldplay’s biggest hit to date, he spills his heart about a love that will never be: “So you know how much I need you / But you never even see me, do you?”
Coldplay is expected to release a follow-up to Parachutes that, Martin says has been partly inspired by the events of September 11. If this album comes close to matching the depth and subtlety of it predecessor, it will be not only a tribute to events past, but a catalyst, to establish Coldplay’s ongoing presence in international music.
Coming to America
It is difficult to say how well the music of these and other emerging British bands will survive the harsh commercialism of the American market. They will face stiff competition from The Strokes, a group of New York City natives whose debut album Is This It is lighting up the charts in the U.S., following a massive publicity buildup by The Strokes in Britain. Better established British rock bands like Radiohead and Blur are also eating up what little consumer market exists for independent music in America. Many budding talents have been nipped in the past by the most expensive and exclusive media airwaves in the world. But if these groups do pull through, they will likely be stronger and their music richer, as a result.