Pop CD of the week: The Libertines, The Libertines

Pop CD of the week: The Libertines, The Libertines

The Libertines
The Libertines

(Rough Trade)

There have been at least as many column inches devoted over the last two years to the private lives and public antics of the Libertines as to their music. First there was huge hype over their early gigs and great mirth at their capacity to get wasted. Then came rumours about singer Peter Doherty's addiction to crack and heroin, followed by his arrest for having burgled his best mate (and lead guitarist) Carl Bart's flat to fund his needs. The former served time for his misdemeanours, garnering huge publicity and sympathy; he was chucked out of the band, then let back in, then chucked out again - perfect fodder for the tabloids and the music press, without even getting to the tunes.

Musically, the first album was hailed as the work of a genius (Doherty) by the NME. Thoroughly British, it was a swaggering riposte to the NYC invasion led by bands such as the Strokes, far more shambolic, punkier and somehow more real. Doherty's tales of a misspent youth tapped straight back into the spirit of British punk and new wave; having Mick Jones as producer can't have hurt either - even if most of the album was recorded live, a one-take affair.

Now Doherty appears definitively to have left the group, following a series of solo shows in pubs (at the Louisiana in Bristol he coaxed the crowd out into the street and led a singalong from the balcony), and formed another group. And now we get this, the Libertines' second album.

How does it compare? Well, where the first album was full of heavy punk guitars, this has a lighter feel. Where it lacks the brilliance of tunes such as 'Boys in the Band' and the first effort's wonderful wasted closer 'I Get Along' (with its catchy 'Fuck 'em!' pause), it is more consistently catchy. Where the debut had Doherty and Bart doing close harmonies, here they duet. And where Up the Bracket was about doomed youth in general, The Libertines is about one doomed youth in particular - namely Doherty, and his turbulent relationship with the band and with drugs.

'Can't Stand Me Now', the current single which kicks off the record, is a case in point. Bart and Doherty trade verses, the former chiding the latter with 'You twist and tore our love apart/ Your light fingers threw the dark'; Doherty responds like a hurt lover - 'No, you've got it the wrong way round/ You shut me up and blamed it on the brown.' Their two voices complement each other well - both have a prematurely wrecked, breathless quality.

Doherty makes plenty of references to his incarceration too. 'As they led him away, he sang/ We'll meet again some day', he sings on 'Last Post on the Bugle', and later, in 'The Man Who Would be King', 'They take you away if they don't like what you say.'

In terms of songwriting and musicianship the record is an improvement on the last. Where the first record fell down on occasion rhythmically, here Gary Powell on drums and John Hassell drive the whole thing along brilliantly (the latter's fast bass riff in 'Don't Be Shy' is fantastic); there's something delicious about the way 'The Ha Ha Wall' goes into half time for 16 bars before apparently going to pieces and then recovering its composure.

And where Doherty and Bart's guitars merged messily on the first record, here they spar, as on 'Don't Be Shy', or come together prettily, with Doherty's acoustic underpinning Bart's noodly yet angular electric on the lovely, lovelorn 'Music When the Lights Go Out'. There are some appealing eccentricities too - the harmonica solo which closes 'Can't Stand Me Now' the trumpet which bursts in on 'The Man Who Would Be King'; the whistling solo - backed by angry punk guitar - on the spiteful, near-psychobilly 'Narcissist'.

Of course there are borrowings. 'Last Post on the Bugle' seems to nick a riff from 'People are People' by Depeche Mode; 'The Man Who Would be King' finishes in a slowed-down 6/8 section with ride cymbals and piano which has definite shades (appropriately) of the Stranglers' 'Golden Brown'. And of course the whole Libertines sound is a borrowing, a mish-mash of a dozen bands from a quarter-century ago. But this is all forgiveable since they put their own stamp on it - and tell their own story; 'What Became of the Likely Lads?' is as frank about their situation as 'Paint a Vulgar Picture' was about the death of the Smiths.

It's just a shame - and very hard to believe - that the party is over.


Molloy Woodcraft

The GuardianTramp

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