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Pop Music | RECORD RACK

OK, Britannia, we surrender

February 19, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

The Arctic Monkeys

"Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" (Domino)

* * * *

Ray Davies

"Other People's Lives" (V2)

* * * 1/2

THE British make rock music the way the Greeks made marble statues.

That's not exactly a news bulletin, but the simultaneous release on Tuesday of Ray Davies' first full-fledged solo album in his four-decade career and the debut by brand new sensations the Arctic Monkeys puts it in dramatic perspective. It's the alpha and omega of British song, the return of the original master dovetailing with a resounding restatement of his legacy.

The two records don't sound anything alike, but they share essential properties -- a Britishness (though Davies' is also informed by his recent New Orleans residency), a sense that they're singing about things that matter, a flair for melody, a ton of attitude and, in front of everything, voices that make you care.

For the Monkeys, that's Alex Turner, who starts with a Johnny Rotten snarl but soon eases into a more approachable, sympathetic companion, recalling the messianic early Bowie, who offered a comforting embrace to all the young dudes.

It's easy to see why the band drew a national following with its Internet-disseminated music before it released "Whatever People Say

It seems less like something recorded in a studio than an instant crystallization of an intensely experienced life. It's that immediate, and though the Yorkshire accent is thick, the action will ring true most everywhere in the modern world.

Set to restive, brittle guitar rock a few notches harder than similarly catchy labelmate Franz Ferdinand's, the Arctic Monkeys undertake an epic prowl, navigating through a night packed with flirtations and confrontations, and ending with the sobering arrival of a cold reality.

Punk and reggae help define their cadences as they spar with cops and bouncers and make their moves with the girls. The music injects every incident with the kind of urgency that's part of adolescence, and Turner finds an aching poignancy when he sings, "Don't get me wrong, though, there's boys in bands, and kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands," sounding relieved that such fundamental things have survived in a world where music is often reduced to ring tones.

Leading the Kinks, Davies churned and seethed like the Monkeys in his British Invasion youth, but it didn't take him long to find a more varied and distinctive musical approach. "Other People's Lives" never gets downright raucous, but Davies' way with words and his perfect delivery give it one potent moment after another.

The album includes some of his familiar song forms -- a comically observed vignette about his neighbors, scathing critiques of crass comedians and tabloid gossip ("I can't believe what I just read / Excuse me I just vomited," he sings in the title song), sentimental character sketches ("Thanksgiving Day"). In the grand "Creatures of Little Faith" he uses a soulful setting to lament the shortage of trust between people.

Every song is a full meal, and each one eventually builds up a rousing head of steam. Davies still has that way of making his arrangements sound like an effortless, utterly natural environment, as if all the pieces just fell into place and are escorting him into that mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world whose poet laureate he remains.

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