Wild Beasts: Two Dancers | CD review


It's hard to think of a recent rock vocalist who has caused as much consternation as Hayden Thorpe, the countertenor at the head of Cumbrian quartet Wild Beasts. There was Antony Hegarty of course, lowing mournfully away like Nina Simone phoning Call You and Yours to complain about cuts to her local bus service, but not even he engendered quite the same degree of critical frothing. One journalist - apparently driven temporarily insane by Wild Beasts' 2008 debut album Limbo, Panto - came to the conclusion that what Thorpe was doing was not just singing in a high voice, but something so enormously advanced and complex that it was "beyond the ken of pop criticism". He actually drafted in David Hill, musical director of the Bach Choir, to confirm that Thorpe was the real deal: "Fascinating ... mixes being a high tenor with a countertenor ... going in and out of head sounds and chest sounds."

Given that everyone else is taking them incredibly seriously, it's perhaps understandable that Wild Beasts have followed suit. Certainly, Limbo Panto's successor, Two Dancers, sets itself up as a statement of considerable import. It arrives for review with a press release in which the band refer to their sound as "erotic downbeat music". The phrase "shimmering in a twilight cadence" is deployed with impunity, producer Richard Formby is described as a "northern enigma" ("northern enigma" is a special music industry term, meaning "bloke who used to produce the Telescopes and Cud"), and the critic is advised that Two Dancers is "a record made by real young men", a sad disappointment for anyone hoping it would be a record made by real gerbils.

A certain high seriousness also permeates the music. Wild Beasts are a band whose faces seem set permanently to "po", which is no mean feat considering the piquant ripeness of their sound. This album features the lyrics "O! Untetherable bird of the blue! O! Unpluckable flower of the moon!" over massed guitars chiming an oriental motif, a kind of musical equivalent of Chinoiserie. Elsewhere, there is a song told from the viewpoint of a violent young Asbo-magnet, who, as is so often the case with violent young Asbo-magnets, sounds like a cross between Dame Nellie Melba and Niles off Frasier: "I was thrilled as I was appalled, courting him in fisticuff waltz." It should be noted that, compared to Limbo, Panto - which featured Thorpe yelping and shrieking his way through songs such as Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants and She Purred While I Grrrred - this very much represents a toning-down. They used to sound a bit overblown and daft.

Any band who don't realise there's something unavoidably hilarious about the line "his dancing cock, down by his knees" and can deliver it with furrowed brow in the middle of a very serious song about sexual abuse are clearly easy prey for mockery. It's a situation compounded by the fact that while Thorpe is evidently a lavishly gifted and original vocalist, there are limits to what he can do. A mannered falsetto can sound strikingly eerie, otherworldly, arch and stentorian, but the one thing it's never going to sound is sexy. So when he suddenly squeals "This is a booty call!" on opener The Fun Powder Plot, he sounds less like someone in the throes of telephonic lechery than a man who's just caught his dancing cock in his zip.

Equally, however, there are moments when the fuss about Wild Beasts is entirely understandable, when they seem boldly original or when they don't sound like anyone else (not even The Affectionate Punch-era Associates, whose swooping vocals, heavily-affected post-punk guitars and penchant for campy lyrical grandiloquence offer their most obvious precedent). When I'm Sleepy and Underbelly are brief but beautiful, the latter drifting away on a sea of music-box chimes. This Is Our Lot is a lovely, affectionate drawing of a dancefloor slowly sinking into boozy lubricity as the night draws to a close and the erection selection looms.

But, weirdly, the album's best moments come when Hayden is relegated to backing vocals, and the lead is taken by guitarist Tom Fleming. His voice has a phlegmatic, northern quality that chafes appealingly against the floridity of the lyrics on All the King's Men, lending the song a certain wryness, making Thorpe's histrionic interjections striking rather than wearisome. It's a strange state of affairs, a band that really come into their own when they background their greatest asset. But there's a lesson in there: sometimes, less is more.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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