On paper, this seemed like such a wonderful thing. Eddie Argos, eloquent and witty front man and lyricist of lo-fi heroes Art Brut gets together with girlfriend Dyan Valdes of L.A. rockers the Blood Arm to produce an album’s worth of “answer songs”: responses or rebukes to famous songs already made by other artists. That its execution often struggles to live up to the undoubted aceness of the concept is, however, clear once you take a listen.
The first indicator that the album is not an unqualified success is that most of the songs here simply fail to stand up on their own, only making at least some kind of sense when compared with their originators. ‘Superglue’, for example (answering Elastica’s ‘Vaseline’) is very content-lite, with overdone repetition of the phrase “When I look at you / I wish I’d used superglue” padding out a song that otherwise doesn’t seem to have very much at all going on. Similar problems are found in ‘(I’m So) Waldo P Emerson Jones’ and ‘Think Twice (It’s Not Alright)’ (a response to Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’) – surprising from such a clearly gifted lyric writer. The impression is of a series half-finished, half-thought out and hastily executed songs, almost of the “well, it seemed funny at the time” level of ideas cooked up in the pub.
The better tracks include those that provide a satisfying, appropriate or effective rebuke to the narrator of the original. ‘G.I.R.L.F.R.E.N.’ is one such, casting the original’s Avril Lavigne character as a desperate, slightly disturbed stalker, attempting to get her hooks into the happily-partnered protagonist. Although it has been “answered” before, this band’s response to ‘Billie Jean’ – ‘Billie’s Genes’ – also works well, adapting and twisting key parts of the original cleverly: “You broke more than just a young girl’s heart”, for example, and “My mother always told me / You not me was the mistake”. ‘Coal Digger’ (answering Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’) is also good value, telling of a penniless young man taking menial jobs whilst “working really hard / writing songs in my head” and being supported by his (clearly non-gold digging) girlfriend.
Perhaps the two most interesting songs, and arguably the only two that would still work if the listener was unaware of the concept behind the album, are ‘The Scarborough Affaire’ and ‘He’s a “Rebel”’. The former is about the “stupid demands” made on a once-straying girlfriend, “To prove she wanted / To be back with me”. Working as its own song, it doesn’t seem too encumbered by reference to the original (‘Scarborough Fair’), although the “cambric shirt” is a neat nod to its folk-song context. The latter, answering The Crystals’ ‘He’s a Rebel’, (the inverted commas giving the new title its significance), is a funny, witty take on a species of scenester / hipster that manages to impress women whilst clearly driving Eddie insane with irritation (and envy?). Couplets like “He read in Vice / He could wear those clothes / He’s not a rebel / It’s just a pose” and too-and-fro boy-girl discussions such as “He’s the kind of guy / That I adore” / “He’s such a prick” / “No, he’s insecure” would not sound out of place on an Art Brut album, and don’t need The Crystals’ back-story to make sense.
The sketchy, hurried, shambolic nature of the project is also revealed in its musical arrangements, most of which are very basic. A plinky-plonk keyboard / synth, which often sounds like it has simply been set to one of the preset options, occasionally interspersed with a brass flourish to add a little much needed “oomph” is the order of the day. Argos’ delivery is its regular, jocular, discursive self (more speaking or perhaps “declaiming” as singing), and a fairly weak female backing vocal (presumably provided by Valdes) is added.
If, like me, you read about the idea behind this album, and thought that it might just be one of the best things ever then I’m afraid, like me, you are likely to end up very disappointed. This feels like a brilliant concept that went wrong somewhere along the way, perhaps through lack of time spent in translating those concepts into more fully-realised tracks, perhaps for other reasons. Whatever the cause, it is certainly a hell of a shame.