Britain's Art Brut have to be one of the most interesting rock bands to emerge this decade. On their 2005 debut album Bang Bang Rock & Roll and even more in concert, every signifier suggested standard-issue hipster sarcasm and diffidence, but closer listening and watching revealed that frontman Eddie Argos meant every word he sang.
The band's obvious comparison was to the Modern Lovers, where Jonathan Richman morphed Velvet Underground cool into guileless romper-room pop. But Richman was (and is) touched in some way. The optimism and sincerity of his music feels involuntary.
With Everyman Argos, clarity and good humor feel strived for — hard won — and more heroic for it. The band's follow-up to Bang Bang Rock & Roll, It's a Bit Complicated, doesn't score as direct as its predecessor. Led by rousing instant anthems such as "Formed a Band" (the group's autobiographical debut single), "Modern Art" ("Modern art makes me want to rock out!") and "Good Weekend" (on the subject of a new girlfriend: "I've seen her naked! TWICE!"), Bang Bang Rock & Roll opened up a whole world. It's a Bit Complicated is more limited — or focused — with doomed relationships and pop fandom the core of the band's concerns.
Argos remains as sharp a wordsmith — conversational, funny, and perceptive — as rock music has right now. He shines on the sardonic, resigned break-up ode "People in Love": "People in love lie around and get fat/I didn't want us to end up like that," he assures his ex. And on the nostalgic "Sounds of Summer," memories of making a mix tape — consumed "under the cover of headphones/In the privacy of bedrooms" — are littered with telling details such as the "play and record button held down together."
But It's a Bit Complicated is at its best when these dual concerns collide. "Direct Hit" is a tale of a bloke who loves dancing with a new crush because he doesn't have to come up with anything to say. "Post Soothing Out" is a break-up non-lament that muses on the function of pop songs to overdramatize romantic splits ("'River Deep and Mountain High'/Those are words that will never apply/Cause I don't lie awake at night/With thoughts of river depth or mountain height"). And "Pump Up the Volume" is the band's new classic. Argos captures a fumbling make-out session in deft strokes — "We're taking our clothes off in the wrong order/And you're leaving your shoes on to make you look taller" — before a comic payoff that has him distracted from his paramour by the urge to turn up the radio to better hear the song that's just come on. — Chris Herrington