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All over the map

A '60s spirit is afloat as diverse music makers pop up in every corner of Britain. Will America catch the drift?

January 08, 2006|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

London — DOWN the five decades of rock 'n' roll, musical Brits have had the cheeky habit of periodically bestriding the world as if we owned it.

In 2005, it was Live 8 that commanded global attention (admittedly fronted by Irishmen Bob Geldof and Bono); a huge gig in Hyde Park, London, it formed the centerpiece of a multinational, all-day show seen on TV and online by a potential audience of untold millions. Down at ground level, the cause -- a demand to "make poverty history" -- was acclaimed. But in the context of current U.K. music, the grand scale of the event actually didn't suit the spirit of the times. The signs are that, at the moment, our rock and pop passions are growing, but in a more personal, small-is-beautiful direction.

Stuart Williams, publishing director of the monthly music magazines Q and Mojo and rock weekly Kerrang!, sees the U.K. music scene in a maelstrom of change. Research he's commissioned shows that the United Kingdom's music fans are kicking over the barriers of "cool" and are "flitting promiscuously" between genres and generations, pop to heavy metal, the White Stripes to Led Zeppelin. It's definitely been good for business -- Mojo's readership rose 27% last year. Moreover, far more women are getting involved: They make up 54% of Kerrang! readers now, where it used to be a steady 20%.

Happily, this turmoil of complex consumerism looks to have its creative side. More people are making music, says Williams: "Five years ago every kid was a DJ. Now they carry guitars, they're in bands, and they want somewhere to play. Discos are converting to gigs with three or four bands on every night. Live music is doing brilliantly everywhere."

So the joint is jumping. Bands and more singer-songwriterly solo artists abound -- significantly, in a manner that recalls the '60s, when British music was great because it defied London-centric cultural tendencies and burst out of every corner of the country.

During 2005, the Kaiser Chiefs from Leeds, Yorkshire, probably came closest to emulating Glaswegian Franz Ferdinand's success. The sharp, uneasy tone of their writing, highlighted by that characteristic hook line "Every day I love you less and less," might have proved just an Anglo thing, but it didn't. Their debut album, "Employment," sold 200,000 in America.

So while the Kaiser Chiefs regroup, consider these tangy regional voices: the Futureheads, Field Music and Maximo Park from Tyne & Wear in the northeast; British Sea Power from Cumbria; Sons & Daughters and Arab Strap from Scotland; Arctic Monkeys and the Harrisons from Yorkshire; the Zutons, Little Barrie and the Longcut from Manchester and Liverpool in the northwest.

And: Kasabian, the Editors and the Young Knives from the Midlands; the Go! Team from Brighton on the south coast; and Bloc Party, Art Brut, the Subways, Hard-Fi and the Magic Numbers keeping London on the map -- the capital's most recent champions, the Libertines, having split into the chaotic Babyshambles (Pete Doherty's lamentable drug history offering little hope for a substantial future) and the as-yet-unheard Dirty Pretty Things (the much steadier Carl Barat's new venture, which was recording in L.A. during December).

Refreshingly, almost all of these bands sing in their own local accents. If enough of them get a hearing, it could become a true test of cool in America to distinguish between Geordie (Newcastle/Maximo Park) and Scouse (Liverpool/the Zutons). But they are united in their witty, often acidic lyrics straight from the heart of young U.K. life today and their high-octane feeling for the still unfolding potential in a fiercely thrashed guitar.

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The new romanticism

THE other current boom is in solo artists/singer-songwriters. The more established names are distinctly unhip, scoffed at by Brit critics as purveyors of "girlfriend music": Damien Rice, Dido, Katie Melua, Jem. James Blunt, the U.K.'s top-selling artist in 2005, now racing up the Billboard chart, has definitely joined that list, while craggy David Gray, much praised for his latest, "Life in Slow Motion," is a rare escapee from uncoolth.

Still, like most stigmatization, it does bear challenging. For instance, Rice is a subtle tunesmith and arranger; Dido writes neat, miniaturized stories; Melua has a lovely delicacy to her singing; and Blunt certainly came up with at least one irresistible song.

The recommended newcomers are on the grittier side, though; people who took their inspiration from blues or '60s folk or even Morrissey, the former bard of Manchester (long L.A.-based and releasing his umpteenth album, "Ringleader of the Tormentors," in April).

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