The Charlatans have been through more dramas than the average soap opera over their 20 years, whether it be death, cancer, nervous breakdowns, jail sentences, yet have stayed one of the most consistent bands in the country.
One secret to their success is the fact that their music is constantly evolving and surprising, whether it be the Curtis Mayfield referencing soul of Wonderland, the ‘baggy’ sound of their earlier material or the rustic pastoral pop of their last album Up At The Lake. With Simpatico though, Tim Burgess and company have really veered off in a new direction – dub reggae.
It’s an interesting move, but one that’s not wholly successful. They haven’t completely taken their eye off what made the Charlatans so successful in the first place, but the new sound is none too convincing. When Simpatico hits form though, it has some of the best songs of the band’s career.
Single and album opener Blackened Blue Eyes is one of those moments, a bluesey piano driven track that builds in intensity, which is quickly followed by the thrilling NYC (There’s No Need To Sleep) which successfully captures the excitement of that city, despite some rather clichéd lyrics. The ‘art-punk’ sound is reminiscent of bands such as LCD Soundsystem, and is a good example of how successful the Charlatans can be at experimenting with their sound.
It’s a great start, but things turn sour soon after. Too many of the songs here feel stale and uninspired, and at some points even sound like lame Hard-Fi rip-offs. The awful City Of The Dead is even a contender for possibly the worst Charlatans song yet recorded. It has a horrendous ‘skanking’ beat, and a dreadful vocal performance from Burgess who even appears to attempt a Jamaican accent at some points. It’s a nadir that the album finds difficult to recover from.
The turgid Road To Paradise is similarly woeful, yet things take an upturn with When The Lights Go Out In London. Thankfully, the ska-reggae feel is dumped and a more old-school Charlatans feel is invoked for this poignant account of the July 2005 bombings, and is one of the more successful moments of Simpatico.
Sadly, songs like this are in the minority on the album. There’s an overall feel of a band running out of ideas and attempting to copy younger groups, such as the aforementioned Hard-Fi and Dead 60s. Architect has a nicely lilting melody but it’s all been done before while Dead Man’s Eyes may as well have been subtitled ‘will this do?’, such is the general atmosphere of apathy seeping from the speakers.
It’s inevitable that a great band like The Charlatans comes up with some duds every now and again, and Simpatico, despite a handful of decent tracks, is certainly one of their lower points. Dig out your old copy of Telling Stories or Wonderland and listen to them instead while hoping that their next effort sees them back on track.