Album Reviews: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not by Arctic MonkeysThe Arctic Monkeys sure don't sound like the band that holds the record for the fastest-selling debut album in British history. But they do, which is actually sort of unfortunate, because now they're the rock 'n' roll equivalent of those dancing hamsters or that video of the dog who could skateboard. The Arctic Monkeys sold 360,000 copies of Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not in a single week because they stumbled upon the sweet spot in that giant echo chamber that is the Internet, and every kid who had NME.com in their bookmarks just had to have a copy the minute it hit the shelves. Pre-release buzz that it might become the fastest-selling debut in British history only helped feed the frenzy.
Why is all of this unfortunate? Because Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (a sly and appropriate title) is actually a very good album, nearly a great one. And hopefully that fact won't get lost in all the hype about the hype, but it probably will.
The Arctic Monkeys have two things going for them: a witty, charismatic frontman in singer-guitarist Alex Turner, and a restless, youthful energy that sends even their most straightforward songs spiking off in all kinds of unexpected directions. They remind me of a British version of the Tennessee rockers Kings of Leon -- both bands project a sort of working class contempt for the careerist conventions of most modern rock, not really worrying about whether their music springs from any current or past tradition, but just stealing whatever bits they need from post-punk, garage rock, jangle-pop and a dozen other styles and gleefully reassembling all the elements in ways their Who/Clash/Smiths/Nirvana forefathers never intended.
So in 13 tightly wound tracks, the Monkeys cover an astonishing amount of territory, from the dance-rock stomp of the obvious hit single, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," to the proto-punk yowlp of the impossibly titled "You Probably Couldn't See For the Lights But You Were Staring Straight at Me," to the album's best track, the Jam-like "A Certain Romance," which sets some of Turner's sharpest pub poetry to an irresistibly loping, jangly riff. And they're smart enough to sprinkle a few surprises in amongst all the punk-kids-from-Sheffield mayhem, including a wistful little tune called "Riot Van" about a youthful encounter with the cops that shows off the band's sweet side. (When they sing about girls, as they do for most of the album, Turner and company are far likelier to sound prickly and agitated.)
Ultimately, just as they promise in their album's title, the Arctic Monkeys are not what people say they are. They're neither the saviors of Brit-rock nor some flash-in-the-pan, Internet-generated sideshow. They're just a young, remarkably talented band who have made a cocky, entertaining debut album that just happened to sell 360,000 copies in one week. They may never match that feat, but they have the right mix of wit, swagger, and songwriting acumen to survive the hoopla and evolve into one of the decade's best bands. -- Andy Hermann
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