Nic Armstrong - The Greatest White Liar
There have been numerous examples of “retro” albums and artists in recent years. Bands such as The White Stripes, who take the blues and update it with the pace and pizzazz demanded by a modern audience, without losing the sparse arrangements that define the genre. Alongside this, there have been any number of Oasis albums recalling the sixties’ sound. Granted, with ever diminishing returns, but providing an urban swagger and cheeky confidence that at their very best (which, let’s not forget, was pretty damn good) reinvigorated the music they undoubtedly love.
Today, we’ve even got bands like The Postal Service, who are plotting a course that takes in eighties’ electronica, and yet harnesses it to the songwriting values of today’s acoustic songsmiths.
I’ve often wondered what will happen when every genre, every era, every musical nuance has been rehashed, reinvigorated and perhaps reimagined as Hollywood would no doubt have us believe. Would we see some genuine leap forward in music? Would we see the wheel reinvented and some kind of ethereal newness that would make you think, “Why hasn’t this been done before” instead of “Hello old friend! I remember when this was done before”? And no, I don’t mean enlisting 27 mates, dressing up in togas and calling yourself a feckin’ “spree”, Mr DeLaughter.
Now that is certainly one option, but despite being the old cynic that I am I don’t believe that this kind of musical revolution is necessary or perhaps even possible, so what else is there? What lies beyond retro? Step up to the plate Nic Armstrong, a man whose music doesn’t sound like the work of a man who adores fifties’ and sixties’ music. It sounds like the work of someone who lives in that period, and has jumped forward in time to share his treats with us. I had feared from the album cover that this would be another songwriter in the earnest and tender mould, but the distorted scream that opens I Can’t Stand It allays such worries from the off. What follows is a song that pushes Nic’s ‘Lennon-esque’ vocals to the front without relying on it entirely. It’s a cracking way to open the album and Broken Mouth Blues continues the rattling pace with its ‘oompah’ guitars. It possesses a sunny chorus that is reprised in the final bars awash with echo and a choral edge. “Looking at all the corners in the room, trying to find an angle that will work” sings Mr Armstrong, and the rest of the LP follows this template.
Tempos ranging from balladeering to venomous are covered with equal glee; above all this is an album that never feels lazy. No one song comes across as a stop gap whilst the artist re-gathers the troops for a final third assault to remember the record by. No sir, if he is to be remembered it’ll be for a collection of songs rather than a batch.
I personally hate songs that labour the point; the ones that realise they have one good idea and run with it to the point of breakdown (see Coldplay’s In My Place for an example of the going-nowhere-slowly sub-genre). From the point of harmonica entry on track two and the subsequent layered vocals it’s clear that won’t be a problem here. Every idea is built upon and if one dozes off there are twenty more volunteers waiting in the wings to pick up the slack.
So anyway, let’s move on, at a pace our hero would be proud of. In Your Arms On My Mind is the first ballad and contains the same themes of nature, flowers and sun that the others on the LP share. It has a brush heavy loveliness that comes across like a street sweeper daydreaming his mundane job away. On A Promise is all handclaps and rhyming couplets, it’s stop/start style perfectly built for the “Woooohoo!” chorus.
I’ll Come To You showcases an element of music who’s versatility never ceases to amaze me…the ubiquitous “da da da”s. It’s at once familiar but I couldn’t say that it reminds me of any particular song. It’s a gorgeous slice of downbeat melancholia that echoes Van Morrison in puddles and mist mode and would sit very nicely in the reflective scene of any film noir. “You and me babe we’re safe from harm, you and me babe let’s get it on” goes the chorus, but it’s a sentiment that we’re to become familiar with when Armstrong isn’t rocking out. He’s trying to convince himself, not his loved one.
The stand out track wades in at track eleven with Scratch The Surface – a sub 2-minute twang fest that would be at home on banjo but is played instead with a tap of the foot guitar swagger straight from the back porch. There’s a pleading to the lyrics, but they are in hope rather than expectation, “I’ll never know if the sun will shine down and who’d’ve put money on our love going wrong?” The lack of compromise in the relationship suggests that Nic’s last few chips were on black from the off. He’s fooling nobody.
What makes the album work is the idea that there’s clearly a high level of production value at work. Every instrument is defined and the vocals are crisp. Someone has realised that authenticity doesn’t necessarily mean inferior equipment, reasoning instead that it’s more about the intentions of the music. However that’s captured, The Greatest White Liar achieves it.