What would happen if you took some of the moodier aspects of Doves, the slightly alternative leanings of Arcade Fire, the grandiosity of U2 and a dual vocal that occasionally disarms the listener by featuring one voice sounding like Robbie Williams? Chances are, you’d end up with something that sounded something like ‘Ninth’, the opening track from ‘Nine’ by The Arthur Brothers. As far as first impressions go, it’s really striking – a reminder that adult pop/rock need not be bland. Better yet, although the track features elements of all of the above, The Arthur Brothers don’t really sound like a blatant copy of any of them. Here is a band who’ve somehow, against the odds, taken a lot of familiar sounding things but used them in such an inventive way, they rarely sound like anything other than themselves. ‘Ninth’ spends its five minutes wisely and fairly concisely; despite wedging at least three different ideas within the one track it never sounds forced. From a listening perspective, whether you choose to be absorbed the deep drum track, the echoing guitar lines or find yourself caught up in a great vocal melody that eventually descends into a simple wordless hook, there’s always something interesting going on. By the time the climax is reached where the band manage to weave complex harmonies in and out of a moody groove that sounds somehow like ‘AM’ era Arctic Monkeys, you really get the feeling that the gloves are off with regards to style. This is an album that promises so much, right from the start.
The Brothers’ abilities to take the familiar into new ground for rock/pop sounds becomes much clearer over the next few songs. ‘Lovesunk’ flaunts a sunny sixties pop sound within a musical framework that could be an old Mercury Rev song. They build upon their influences by adding their own quirks which, in this case, involves militaristic drumming, higher register vocals and various beats that would be better suited to electronica than would-be radio-friendly pop. By the time you’ve heard this three or four times, there’s a danger for the chorus to stick, despite not ever offering the most obvious of hooks. Better still is the kitchen sink arrangement of the lengthy coda where The Arthur Brothers have the audacity to throw electric pianos and tight harmony vocals against a huge clattering sound that could be The Polyphonic Spree in a rather obtuse mood. In terms of alternative pop/rock, it’s just lovely – the sound of a band without boundaries. Moving into ‘Violet Hum’ the mood changes completely at first to indulge in some fractured electronica topped by deep, near spoken vocals, before branching out into the kind of close harmonies beloved by Fleet Foxes, a passage or two of hard hitting indie rock, a bass line borrowed from Nile Rodgers, weird oriental quirks, and – finally – back it’s to the original melody to give a more obvious context. To bring everything up to speed, most of this then repeats. On the surface, it appears the band had a bunch of great ideas and they pulled them out a bucket at random, but – here’s the odd thing – it sort of works. By the time they’ve abandoned all hope of being the new NME darlings of pop-rock and track that teases with atmospheric jazz to close, listeners get yet another glimpse of a different side of their obvious talents.
An album standout, ‘Watson’ begins strongly throwing out disjointed chords and neo-psych vocal passages. In true Brothers style, they quickly introduce something new, and in this case, the additions come from strident piano and deep bass, hinting at the rare melodic moments within the John Lennon solo catalogue. This would make a decent three minute track, but with another six still ticking down, it’s all change again as a massive groove rises. It’s the way the Brothers use it that’s important, though, and by placing a very rhythmic sound over a treated and echoing vocal, the sound is briefly reminiscent of early Kasabian (and more specifically tracks like ‘Club Foot’), but as always, that’s not the whole story. At somewhere around the mid point of a lengthy nine minutes, electronic vocals and floaty chants battle it out as if Flaming Lips are on a weird bender, while haunting strings play theatrical melodies. It’s a mess. As you might expect, assuming you’ve made it this far, it’s a glorious mess – a montage of madness, even, and yet somehow it always clings on to an indie rock heart that makes the listener want to go ever deeper into the Arthur Brothers world.
The second half of the album offers no obvious let up from the unexpected. ‘Great Escape’ is a tune that somehow manages to apply a fey indie vocal to an atmospheric tune that sounds like an overhang from Marillion’s dark masterpiece ‘Brave’ (which, perhaps not coincidentally, also features a ‘Great Escape’). It at first makes the listener feel a sense of calm with its sparse piano work, but ultimately explodes into a world of atonal brass and falsetto in the most unnerving fashion, before the Radiohead-ish ‘Lynchmob’ acts as a perfect continuation on a theme, replacing the brass with a truly earth-shattering burst of distorted guitar. Everything about this feels like something written for a concept album rather than a stand alone piece hidden within (an admittedly twisted) indie rock album, but for anyone willing to invest the time wading through this long player, it could well become a highlight. Naturally, it sounds almost nothing like the kitchen sink pop of ‘Ninth’ or ‘Lovesunk’, and its easy to suspect the band are delighted by this. Taking heavy beats and a choir of vocals, ‘Flawless’ opts for something even darker – almost funereal, in fact – and despite offering something of a more obvious hook, it’s sort of…disappointing. It maybe the fact that by now you’re expecting the unexpected, so to hear The Arthur Brothers sounding as dull as Elbow on an especially overcast Thursday, it’s bound to come up short. Nevertheless, repeated listens suggest the big hook is effective enough and an underused piano provides a more obvious link with the preceding tracks. That’s never enough to get past a nagging feeling that it’s the album’s “filler” track, though…
Pulling into the close of a largely brilliant album, ‘Mercury’ takes more obvious cues from Radiohead circa ‘Amnesiac’ and shows off an inventive use of distortion and haunting melodies before ‘Sun Gun’ closes this brilliant record with another genuine classic. Reverting to the more epic, these final nine minutes take in a huge influence from jangling pop, 1960s style. Listeners are bound to hear traces of The Byrds underscoring harmonies that could’ve been pulled from the final days of Graham Nash’s time with The Hollies. More than ever, The Arthur Brothers seem content to let the sunny sounds bathe everyone, without wanting to be too clever, even though there’s still very much a knowing feeling in the way it plays out. The song’s hook screams old hippie ideals; the production values take things back to Teenage Fanclub’s 90s peak and – in short – the repetitious melodies are rarely shy of beautiful. If you’ve tried listening to this album, been daunted by its complexity and have given in by the third track, you’ve already missed one of the best tunes of the year. By placing it at the end of a long and challenging album, The Arthur Brothers rob the less patient listener of a genuine reward, but in other ways, it’s a smart move: that big hook and bigger harmony is one of the last things you hear before the disc stops spinning. As you spend a few moments contemplating everything you’ve heard, the melody already starts to spin around your head like an old friend. In terms of lasting impressions, they really couldn’t have dealt a better final hand.
A record that bravely forces indie and pop into new territories, ‘Ninth’ is a brilliant release that seems completely without boundaries or restrictions. The way that the songs twist in on themselves and seem happy to take an unexpected left turn at any moment, certainly recalls Mansun’s similarly bonkers ‘Six’…even though the end results have almost nothing else in common. Their songs are a lot of things but, mostly, The Arthur Brothers are unapologetically progressive in a way that almost all prog bands aren’t. For fans of the more adventurous end of the Mercury Rev catalogue and post ‘Yoshimi’ Flaming Lips, this is a record that should be hugely appealing.