Album review: Art Brut, “Brilliant! Tragic!” (Downtown)

June 14, 2011

How far can a schlub with a winning, self-deprecating sense of humor but minimal musical talent take it in the pop world? Or, to put it another way, is there life after Art Brut?

Eddie Argos and his bandmates’ slightly metallic, inside-indie-rock update of early Modern Lovers never was by necessity doomed to a finite shelf life; hey, the Ramones took similarly minimal ingredients and kept things fresh for more than two decades. But now comes Art Brut studio album number four, and despite the merits of the British group’s previous efforts—especially the classic 2005 debut “Bang Bang Rock & Roll”— the joke has gotten awfully stale, and the formula for the first time seems thorougly played out.

Really, how bereft of inspiration for things to complain about or pay tongue-in-cheek tribute to must one be in order to write: “When the world’s got you by the f---ing throat/Who do you want in your corner?/Axl Rose!/No one understands me/Or even comes close/Who have I got in my corner?/Axl Rose!” Is this really the same group that, last time around on “Art Brut vs. Satan” (2009), eloquently paid homage to the Replacements, and once seemed like a successor to at least part of that band’s legacy?

Alas, the tune named for Guns N’ Roses’ lead embarrassment isn’t even the worst moment on “Brilliant! Tragic!,” a title which nicely describes the Art Brut career arc from the beginning to the present. As in the past, the musicians do a perfectly workmanlike job backing Aros up, but he has little say this time—and it doesn’t help that producer Frank Black encouraged him to sing more, veering from his usual spoken-word soliloquies. From eloquently giving voice to the joys of starting a band, Argos has fallen to berating those who just don’t “get” his art (“Clever, Clever Jazz”). From reveling in his band’s sometimes ham-handed but usually charming take on barebones metal/garage rock, he’s taken to pondering how much fun it would be to make dinner music (“Sexy Sometimes”). And, in “Bad Comedian,” he’s devolved into taking shots at people who aren’t as funny as they think they are… without pausing for a moment to look in the mirror.

Is there life after Art Brut? Argos seemed to be considering that question with “Everybody Was in the French Resistance… Now!,” his 2010 Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin turn with girlfriend Dyan Valdes. Now it’s time for him to act on it.

On the four-star scale: 1 STAR