Hype's a bit too warm for Arctic monkeys

Critical Eye

March 26, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

THE BUZZ DIDN'T START HERE, BUT IN seemingly no time, the American mainstream press had jumped on the Arctic Monkeys hype bandwagon unleashed in England, the nervy punk quartet's native country.

In October, the group's first single, the kinetic "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," made its debut at No. 1 on the British pop charts, leading the notoriously hyperbolic British press to elevate the young group (none of the members are past 21) to the holy level of the Beatles.

That is all good, but as the Arctic Monkeys seem to know already, too much buzz kills. In an increasingly Internet-driven culture where attention spans are virtually nonexistent and discovery of new sounds is just a click away, how does a young band with potential grow?

"It's the media that's generating the hype, not the band," Jon Cohen, president and co-founder of Cornerstone Promotion, a New York-based marketing company, says of the group, whose first American tour stops at Washington's 9:30 Club tomorrow night. (It is, of course, sold out.)

"The group's label [Domino, an independent company whose roster also includes Franz Ferdinand] has done a good job of making light of the hype," Cohen says. "The record company is showing some restraint by not putting them on so many major markets."

When the Arctic Monkeys' ironically titled debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not, was released in January, it became the fastest-selling debut in British music history. This was the culmination of about a year's worth of Internet-generated buzz -- music geeks circulating MP3s of the band's demos. Then in February, when the album landed in Stateside stores, the American music press (namely The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard) started fawning over these nondescript guys.

A week ago, the strain was beginning to show as the Arctic Monkeys appeared at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, an annual 10-day event where reputations of burgeoning acts are either inflated or skewered by thousands of critics. Lead singer Alex Turner, 19, reportedly snapped at photographers and, during the band's performance, griped to a capacity crowd about all the attention the Arctic Monkeys have received.

"I would be terrified if I were their manager," says Peter O'Fallon, a 22-year industry veteran and owner of The Gig, a premier Hollywood-based venue for unsigned acts. "It would be wise to pull away from the hype right now. What works in their advantage is that they're a good band. They don't seem to sound like anybody else."

Well, that's not entirely true.

Whatever People Say I Am is indeed a good rock record, white-hot with the kind of unbridled passion and energy typical of new young bands. But there's nothing immediately distinctive about the group's sound, which borrows heavily from the Strokes, the Clash and the Libertines. The songs are overloaded with choppy, clanking, familiar punk guitar riffs. And though Turner is a talented enough writer, he often jams the tunes with too many words. Songs mostly revolve around teen-age party life in working-class England.

But the Arctic Monkeys' musical greenness shouldn't be held against them. Like many young musicians (the band members started playing their instruments barely five years ago), they emulate their influences until they find their own voice. The Beatles didn't produce Revolver in their first year as a band. The Rolling Stones spent years mining the blues and obscure R&B before they developed a sound of their own. But the Arctic Monkeys, an undeniably talented band, emerges at a much different time.

"There are few careers now," says Cohen of Cornerstone. "I'd like to see more bands survive beyond the hype. It's important that the group can cultivate a fan base. Unfortunately, the press speeds the cycle up so much that the band doesn't get a chance to develop. The expectations have to happen so fast because of the Internet and the media now."

Ed Schipul runs Schipul -- The Web Marketing Company, a firm in Houston, Texas, that analyzes various online trends. Given today's madly fickle, Internet-enhanced pop music scene, he suggests that overexposure would kill the group. Instead of lashing out at the media hype machine, he says the band should "do something more constructive with the hype, like funnel the attention to a charity or something."

"With my company, we talk about positioning in the mind of the consumer," Schipul explains. "If a band like the Arctic Monkeys doesn't bring something unique, then they will drift off in the minds of consumers. They need to have something that will resonate beyond the hype to last. ... It would be smart for them to come up with a sound, a niche, a category and promote that. The bigger the category, the bigger the band, like grunge and Nirvana in the '90s."

It's evident on Whatever People Say I Am that the Arctic Monkeys have the potential to be a great band. But the members need more experience. They need to live a little so that their music can evolve.

If only the international music press would just shut up about them for a minute, perhaps the Arctic Monkeys could hear for themselves where they need to grow.

Tribune wire reports contributed to this story.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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