The Bookhouse Boys
Okay. Please go with me on this one. The CD hits the mat. Then the PR lady sends me a lovely email asking if I might be so good as to give it a spin. If I've got time, like. No rush. Sure. No problem. And, true to form, it hits the bottom of the pile and after a week, maybe more, I get around to it, sniffily look it over, give it a spin. Expecting nothing, as you do, driving around, mentally compiling shopping lists, blocking out work, checking out the grey clouds, switch on the radio and think ... why oh why do these dolts continue to flog this dead old horse ? Who opens the gate for all these incompetents, these fools, these deluded half-wits who continue to poison the airwaves and the very air itself with their strum-strum, lazy, blokey indie 'pop' ? And then, of course, just a minute or so into my first (of dozens to date) play of this remarkable record, I'm yanked back into the here and now. Every last one of my jaded preconceptions disappears. And here's why. There are nine of them. They hail from London town. They are called The Bookhouse Boys. Their album, almost dismissive of anything as frivolous as a title, goes by the same name. It is inutterably, heroically great and my favourite album of the year by a country mile.
The name is surely a clue; I picked up on that one straight away. (No ? Look it up. Makes perfect sense.) There are actually clues aplenty but maybe the proliferation (and glorification) of the lad-sy mundane in order to satisfy our ever-diminishing definition of the 'alternative' makes me simply expect the worst. Even their promo photos lower expectations. Nine of 'em, demob-suit chic, a lone female sprayed into a red dress. What do you reckon ? Tindersticks with some smoky chanteuse thrown in for colour ? Nah. I mean, what are the chances ? It's clearly nothing but pose - a convincingly realised approximation of what that whole shabby gang-on-the-edge, losers-against-the-world thing can so often be ... but so often isn't. The Pogues. The Bad Seeds. Dexy's. Yeah right. How can such labouring wannabes measure up ? And then, as I say, you listen. And this phenomenal debut elbows its way into your world and simply sets up home.
The Bookhouse Boys are, according to their Myspace summary : 'Surf/alternative.' Mmm. I'm sure that Mr Myspace gives only limited options under 'Artist Type' but even so, that's a bit like calling Leonard Cohen a folk singer. Over the course of ten songs they cover all manner of bases, and I'll get the thesaurus out later, but to try to simply give some indication of what they're like, we'll start with singer and gang leader Paul van Oestren. At times bleary-voiced in that 'empty-the-ashtray' way we expect from our favourite chronichlers of the shattered heart, he throws himself around the changing stylings of his backing like a tripped-out jackhammer. At times, Waits-like whispers ('Shoot You Down') give way to fiery preaching ('Dead') that would make even Nick Cave start. On a couple of tracks the production distorts his delivery and I'm reminded of Matt Bellamy. Whatever, here's an outfit led by a performer with guile and guts. Only time will tell if he has enough of a manifesto to turn into a, say, Kevin Rowland or a Cave. But hopes are high.
The songs. Opener 'Dead' comes at you like the craziest, most hedonistic mariachi party. With its assembly of horns, strings and pounding bass, it's like the Pixies' 'Wild Surf' crossed with the opening of The Waterboys' 'Don't Bang the Drum'. For such an extreme blast, it's a wonder that they've managed to elbow in hooks that grab and a tune that could cheer the charts. 'Shoot You Down', a ribald take on 'I love you but I hate you too' is the first song to reveal van Oestren's sparring partner, Catherine Turner. Crystalline voiced and clearly far too special to be hanging around with eight blokes in the back of a smelly van, she gets notes out of the higher end of the register where most cheating backing dames go for flip and falsetto. (She's in the background of most tracks and comes to the fore on just a couple; you expend energy on waiting for those to appear.) 'Baby I Gotta Go' is a tremulous ode to leaving, a tear-stained elegy. 'Yer Blue' shimmers and shakes like Crime and the City Solution's 'Six Bells Chime'. 'I Believe', a thumping semi-epic that closes with van Oestren's closing scream of "I believe in love !" (a doubtful claim, based on the evidence.)
What the Bookhouse Boys have conjured up here with this unfashionably committed record is an album that embraces fashionable genres (Leone orchestrations, Mariachi rhythms, Dick Dale guitar lines) but, for once, has the smarts to weld them with courage and taste. (Their live cover of 'Confide in Me', best single of the 90s, only confirms this.) And I love them for it. Love them. One forgets that it's possible to unearth diamonds like this from such swathes of rough. Forgive the cynicism; I'm not quite so feckless to allow a single album to convince me all is not lost. All things considered, 2008 has been a triumphant year for new music, music that dares to up the ante and turn its back on the lure of festival dollars and boorish posturing. The likes of Nicole Atkins, Elbow, Kathleen Edwards, The Drones, Blood Red Shoes, Lykke Li, Port O'Brien, Those Dancing Days, The Long Blondes - all of these and more light up the drab landscape. But none shine as bright as this lot. Tossed-off rhetoric be damned, sometimes all you need is a good old-fashioned declaration of love. The Bookhouse Boys are here and boy, they are rare treasure. Magnificent.