Northern Portrait - Criminal Art Lovers
It's October 1987 and Stephen Morrissey has spent the past five years changing the face of contemporary music forever. He's appeared on TOTP with gladioli emerging from the back of his trousers and The South Bank Show is heralding his recently disbanded band as being wholly unique with the understatement of being “the most original English band of recent years”. The eighties had seen a troubled transition in music, with punk having somehow evolved into new romantic, New Order moved from doom to disco and Bruce Springsteen being hailed as the future of rock n roll. The Smiths stood high and mighty amongst the decade's offerings and did indeed play the leading role in creating the seeds of the rich period to follow. Fast-forward then to the first decade of the new century and we have seen something of an unhealthy musical return to the eighties. If we are to herald the likes of La Roux and Lady Ga Ga as being worthy of major accolade, then we have not progressed surely? Interpol and Editors have contributed arguably the only credible eighties influenced material and so we surely need another Smiths to send us blazing into the next decade - introducing Northern Portrait.
Many fans of The Smiths felt that, whilst they bonded with the solo Morrissey, none of the material ever matched up to his former manifestation - indication that the influence of Johnny Marr had always been underscored whilst they were a unit. Listening here to the opening hollow punchy drums and jangly guitar sounds of 'The Münchhausen In Me' and you are taken back to those heady days; then the vocals cut in, with a tale of despair and boredom, convincing you that this is indeed some unearthed treasures from the band of yore. The style continues throughout the album and there will no doubt be cries of plagiarism and treacherous mimicry, yet one needs to reflect on the quality of what is delivered and it is difficult not to allocate a level of credibility for that alone. There's a quintessential Englishness about the whole experience too, from lyrics like “I'm gay in the old-fashioned sense of the word” to the uncluttered arrangements and the forceless manner of the execution. But here's the rub, these guys hark from some considerable distance away from Manchester - Denmark to be precise!
For those not familiar with the band, they released two exceptional EPs last year, 'The Fallen Aristocracy' and 'Napolean Sweetheart' giving rise to a degree of critical acclaim and then a few select gigs both in the UK and US. This, the debut album, has taken some time to put together and includes but one track from those EPs, the splendid 'Crazy'. This is a little surprising and, particularly given the relative shortness of the album, one would have liked to have seen second outings for more of the other previous material, like 'I'll Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me' or 'A Quiet Night In Copenhagen'. But putting that to one side, we do have an album that brightly illuminates an indie world that was rather too dimly lit during 2009 and so this, being one of the New Year's earliest releases, may well set us off on a serious recovery trail. Lyrically, it lacks the cynicism and insight of Morrissey but there is a tongue-in-cheek charm and poignant wit to it, like “days of writing on the walls, never-ending, scratching letters all the time, never sending” from 'New Favourite Moment'. One of the stand out tracks here was originally written for the EPs, 'The Operation Worked But The Patient Died' and is given a neat re-work, with a piercing beat and Stefan Larsen's quivering vocals pleading for compassion. Then there's the lushness of 'That's When My Headaches Begin' where the pace is dropped to accommodate the morosity: “armed with my weapons of self destruction”. It's hard not to pick out 'Crazy' though as the class jewel on display here, with it's rich musical depth and beautiful melody; it's the track that first gained the band attention and rightly so. Larsen writes compelling music and professes to have not even heard of The Smiths when he started out. He is though, in so many senses, that same frail understated man who is content within the expression of his own existence. Should he, similarly, develop the ability to place a wry slant on life's grander scale inequalities, then there's no telling where he might take his band . . .if the world will listen. For now at least this could indeed be your new favourite moment and if the queen really is dead, then Northern Portrait are perfect regal successors!
Release date: January 2010