Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The...Artichokes

by Wayne Robins

Recently I picked up a CD. It's by a group from Los Angeles called the Artichokes. Some people hate that name, but I think it suits them. Arti chokes. art chokes. art jokes. Their previous records have contained songs about science. This one is a song-by-song cover of the Sex Pistols' still relevant 1977 album, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols."

It's a much more interesting record than I expected. It is almost entirely acoustic and sparely acoustic at that: acoustic guitar, hand claps, the occasional theremin and harmonies so twee that it makes early Belle & Sebastian sound like the Four Tops singing "Seven Rooms of Gloom."

Yet it's not a "Kidz Bop" Sex Pistols' session, either. In fact, the Artichokes album, perhaps unintentionally, exemplifies the reason that the best punk—the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones—has been so lasting. It is because the songs are standing the test of time. Do you remember the first time you heard Annie Lennox sing "Train in Vain"? It was like a bucket of ice over the head on a steaming hot day, and yet it took the brain at least a few extra synapse jumps to make the connection: That this was an agonizingly beautiful and soulful rendition of a Clash tune.

In recent years the richness of many Ramones songs has been recognized by the likes of Tom Waits, who included two of their songs on his powerhouse 2006 three-disc release. Then there is Thea Gilmore, the U.K.'s best-kept musical secret and one of her generations (she must be 27 by now) great singer-songwriters with attitude. Gilmore's covers are a gift: She's done the Clash's "I'm Not Down" on "Songs from the Gutter" (2005). On the all covers "Loft Music," (2004) she opens with the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen In Love" and the Ramones' "Don't Come Close" armed only with guts and a guitar. Yes, there are Jimmy Cliff, John Fogerty and Van Morrison songs on the album as well, but it is the melody and magnetism of the Buzzcocks and Ramones' songs that I keep coming back to.

The Artichokes right now consist of Timothy Sellers, vocals and guitar, Craig Polding plays guitar, Ema Tuennerman sings and plays ukulele and accordion.

With their acoustic approach, the sinewy structure of the songs stands out. I like the lowest-fi guitar on "Liar," the simple handclap percussion on "Problems." "Anarchy in the U.K." is like a late 1950s beatnik party anthem, with fingersnaps, handclaps, and an almost-walking bass line. It's all very neat. Then anarchy arrives, with a fat horn solo and bleating sounds, like a zombie uprising—or an ordinary day among the sheep. And I love the way Ema delivers "Bodies," finding the humanity that the Pistols scorned: "I'm not an ani-mal," she sings with childlike delight.

"Holidays in the Sun" is like a hall of mirrors. I once thought of the Pistols' version as an attack on that bourgeois notion of "vacations"—a superficial interpretation. The Artichokes version explores the Pistols attraction to and rejection of totalitarianism. The holiday has taken them to the most palpable tragic construction of the Cold War: "I had no reason to be here at all/But now I got a reason, it's no real reason and I'm waiting—at the Berlin Wall." It is sung as a lament, like a Leonard Cohen song that should have been on his greatest album, by far, "The Future." On the title song, Cohen sings, "bring back the Berlin Wall" because, like the Sex Pistols, he sees no future, no future for you.

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