CD of the week: The Last Shadow Puppets, The Age of the Understatement


When Scott Walker gave a handful of interviews around his 2006 album The Drift, talk occasionally turned to current pop music. Perhaps to emphasise that he wasn't quite the aloof recluse of popular myth, he mentioned the buzz band of the moment: "I've heard the Arctic Monkeys," he offered, hopefully, "and all that kind of thing."

At least he now knows that the admiration is mutual. Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and Miles Kane of Wirral trio the Rascals have mentioned a few influences on their album as the Last Shadow Puppets, pre-fame David Bowie and composer-producer David Axelrod among them, but the longest shadow over The Age of the Understatement is undoubtedly cast by the former Scott Engel. "More Scott Walker than Scott Walker" said one radio DJ before premiering the album's title track, which led at least one listener to momentarily hope that Turner and Kane had made an album influenced by the enigmatic singer's latterday hitting-lumps-of-raw-meat-while-screaming-about-Mussolini approach, if only to see the reaction from the more lumpen sections of Arctic Monkeys' fanbase.

Perhaps inevitably, however, it's his vintage work that holds the duo in thrall. Sometime Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett has been drafted in to play the role of Wally Scott, the orchestral arranger who cut such a surprising figure in recent Walker documentary 30 Century Man, largely because he's now a sweet old lady called Margaret. My Mistakes Were Made For You steals pretty much everything from Scott 4's The Old Man's Back Again. Quite aside from his music, you can see why the figure of Scott Walker - with his noble-but-doomed struggle to interest a resolutely mainstream British audience in things like existentialism, arthouse cinema and Gallic chanson - might appeal to Turner, a sensitive and intelligent songwriter who spends a hefty proportion of his life watching crowds of Hackett-clad troglodytes chuck beer at each other while Arctic Monkeys play live. In response, the more excitable areas of the music press have started carrying on as if Alex Turner is the first person in history to make an album influenced by Scott Walker. I've researched this thoroughly and can exclusively reveal that he isn't.

However, Kane and Turner seem more interested in Walker's uptempo material than the ballads previously imitated to the point of cliche. There are tracks here that amble anonymously down an drearily well-trodden path, not least The Chamber and Black Plant. But if the album has a recurring motif, it's the galloping rhythm borrowed from Walker's version of Jacques Brel's Mathilde: hardly a commonplace sound in latterday alt-rock. Its darting pace fits with the audible enthusiasm of an artist broadening his scope. With no Rascals album as a yardstick, it's hard to judge how big a digression this is for Kane, but it's clearly a stimulating departure for Turner. The lyrics move away from his usual witty-but-prosaic observations into more opaque invention, without sacrificing sharpness. "I can still remember when your city smelt exciting," begins Calm Like You. "Burglary and fireworks, the skies they were alight." It's a pretty gripping way to open a song.

More unexpected are the album's dabblings in high camp, a phrase seldom used in conjunction with Arctic Monkeys: with his lads-mag model girlfriend and background in tiling, you really can't imagine guitarist James "Cookie" Cook making with the limp wrists and extravagant flourishes. Here, however, Turner delivers the line "the girl with many strategies wakes the wolves to curse them to their knees", while in the background, a tango rhythm thunders, strings flutter and swirl and a horn section does its nut. You can't really hear it without picturing him singing with one hand on his hip and the other doing something flamboyant: given Arctic Monkeys' constituency, you have to admit there's a certain fearlessness on display.

There's also a certain eagerness: recorded in a fortnight, The Age of the Understatement fizzes with the zeal of the recent musical convert. The duo's almost indistinguishable voices occasionally chafe against the lush backing, but there's still a fervour to their harmonies at odds with Turner's usual laconic approach. Their pastiches feature such an abundance of loving detail that The Age of the Understatement frequently seems as much about the overwhelming effect Scott Walker's greatest hits can have on the listener as the mysterious femme fatale who inhabits almost every lyric. It's an album that bounds out of the speakers, grabs you by the arm and starts yelling about the fantastic records it's been listening to recently. Even if you heard those same records years ago, it's hard not to find that kind of enthusiasm infectious.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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