Album Reviews

The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age Of The Understatement

(Domino) UK release date: 21 April 2008

Side-projects seem to be all the rage at the moment. The Breeders are back, fitting in a new album between Pixies reunions, the King of Convenience Erlend Oye has reinvented himself as The Whitest Boy Alive, while Jack White and Brendan Benson have just released the second Raconteurs album.

It’s difficult to think of a less likely set of references for Alex Turner’s new band. Goodbye the ghosts of Doherty, Casablancas and John Cooper Clarke. Say hello to Scott Walker (the ’60s version, not the mildly terrifying modern-day Walker), John Barry and just a touch of Ennio Morricone. Although it’s radically different to most of Arctic Monkeys’ output, the seeds of Last Shadow Puppets can be traced in Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Think of the longing of 505 or the shimmering ballad of The Only Ones Who Know. Then strip away the furious drums and incendiary guitar riffs and add in strings courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Rope in Miles Kane of Arctic touring mates The Rascals on guitar and vocals, and half of Simian Mobile Disco James Ford to produce and play drums, and you’ll get some idea of how The Last Shadow Puppets sound.

The title track kicks off the album like a statement of intent – all galloping drums and dramatic strings (arranged, like all the tracks here, by Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett) framing the near identical vocals of Turner and Kane. Again the song’s lineage can be traced back to Brianstorm, but using ’60s Scott Walker songs such as Jackie as a template.

Elsewhere, the tone is either of wallowing regret (the beautiful centrepiece of My Mistakes Were Made For You), the jaded cynicism of Calm Like You (“I can still remember when your city smelt exciting”) or thumping, mariachi-tinged spaghetti western themes (the bustling Separate And Ever Deadly). It’s a tribute to Turner and Kane that they can easily slip from one mood to the next without disrupting the feel of the album.

The lyrics are a lot more abstract than we’re used to with Turner, but almost every track has some head-turning moment of imagery. In My Room tells the tale of a mysterious woman who sees “things with a second glance, as she turns through her magazine”, sung over a swelling string arrangement while The Chamber, despite being an almost fluffily light musical concoction, is maybe the album’s darkest moment, with a lyrical refrain of “it’s torture…locked inside the chamber”.

At times, the whole ’60s vibe becomes a tad overwhelming. The introduction to Black Plant sounds like it should be used to soundtrack a walk down Carnaby Street while the undeniably beautiful My Mistakes Were Made For You has more than a touch of Windmills Of Your Mind about it. Yet at other times, more contemporary references come to mind – the more wistful moments recall none other than The Coral, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the Merseysiders were one of Alex Turner’s heroes growing up.

Miles Kane’s influence should not be underestimated either. Whether the album will propel The Rascals to Arctic-like levels of success is open to question, but he makes the perfect foil for Turner here. Their voices are so similar that they mesh perfectly together – indeed, at times it’s hard to distinguish which Puppet is singing which line. Kane’s tremolo-soaked guitar on the majority of the tracks also adds as much to the atmosphere as the much vaunted strings do, especially on the furious I Don’t Like You Anymore.

It’s remarkable that what started as a drunken joke between two musicians in their early 20s can sound so polished and professional. It’s also a tribute to Turner’s work ethic that in three short years he’s produced three excellent albums. Whether there’ll be any more albums from the Last Shadow Puppets remains to be seen, but for now this is yet more confirmation of Turner’s almost supernatural talent.

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The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age Of The Understatement