England’s Arctic Monkeys are in L.A. but not necessarily of it
Alex Turner knows how it looks: A young British rock band, widely admired for its unflinching depictions of a pub-crawl demimonde, finds huge success at home, then packs up and moves to sunny Los Angeles just as it’s on the verge of becoming a kind of national institution.
But if longtime fans of England’s Arctic Monkeys are worried that the group has abandoned its unsavory roots, Turner has words of reassurance.
“We used to have a little space on this scuzzy street in Sheffield,” the singer-guitarist said recently. “And now we’ve got one on a scuzzy street in Hollywood instead.” He chuckled behind his vintage gold-framed Ray-Bans. “The two are probably equally shady.”
Indeed, there’s plenty of grime to be gleaned from “AM,” the new Arctic Monkeys album, as in the bleary “One for the Road” and the wryly titled “No. 1 Party Anthem,” in which Turner describes a late night at what might be any number of joints near the band’s new headquarters: “Lights in the floors and sweat on the walls / Cages and poles / Call off the search for your soul.”
Still, “AM” does add fresh wrinkles — Botoxed ones, perhaps — to a post-punk sound that arrived on a wave of hype with Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.”
On that album, which set several sales records and won the United Kingdom’s prestigious Mercury Prize, Turner spun his detailed yarns over scrappy garage rock that elicited comparisons to the work of the Strokes and London’s Libertines. Subsequent records added traces of psychedelia and heavy metal, some inspired by the group’s friendship with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who co-produced 2009’s “Humbug” at a studio in Joshua Tree.
Those elements crop up again on “AM”; Homme contributes vocals to two songs. But here the band — which also includes guitarist Jamie Cook, bassist Nick O'Malley and drummer Matt Helders — juices its rhythmic attack with low-slung beats that feel derived from Dr. Dre’s hip-hop productions, while Turner pushes his vocals to a new level of clammy sensuality. In songs such as “Do I Wanna Know?” and “Knee Socks,” the group offers a grungier take on the blue-eyed soul-funk style that ruled airwaves this summer.
Speaking with Helders last month at a Los Feliz lunch spot, Turner allowed that Arctic Monkeys’ move to L.A. — where the experience of listening to the car radio establishes a whole system of sonic values — affected the band’s approach on “AM.”
But he also said the record reflects the desire he’s always had to keep moving forward — to “not get stuck” no matter where he’s doing business. The group’s previous record, 2011’s “Suck It and See,” sounded a bit stuck, he admitted; it’s basically a less effective retread of “Humbug.”
Yet when Arctic Monkeys wrote the new album’s slinky but bruising “R U Mine?” — and then played it on tour last year as the Black Keys’ opening act — Turner felt his imagination spark. “The vocals on that song share something with contemporary R&B;,” he said. “And from there it was like, ‘Well, what else can we pull in that doesn’t normally go in the rock band box?’”
The folks at home haven’t put up much resistance to that dabbling: Last week “AM” debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. album chart, and it’s nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize.
“People were a bit put out when they first heard the Monkeys had gone to America — like ‘Have they forgotten us?’” said Matt Wilkinson, an editor at the British magazine NME. “But the album has had such a good reaction here. You can’t argue with the music.”
Nor with the idea of what defines home anyway for a busy touring act like Arctic Monkeys, whose latest trek is scheduled to stop at the Wiltern from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. “To me it means having an actual key as opposed to a key card,” Helders said. “And having to clean your own towels.”
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