For all their stiff-upper-lip stoicism, the British go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs over any native band that can gin up three chords and an attitude. The latest kings of England are the Arctic Monkeys, four lads who got guitars for Christmas in 2001, mastered them quickly, toured the country and handed out home-burned CDs of songs that were then uploaded to the unsigned-band portal MySpace.com Their following metastasized to the point that the band sold out the famed London Astoria last year on word of mouth. When a record-company bidding war ensued, the Arctic Monkeys signed with independent label Domino for a tidy sum and in January released their debut album in Britain, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, which not only is the fastest-selling British debut ever but was also voted by readers of the influential New Musical Express as the fifth greatest British album--of ALL TIME!-- topping, among others, the Beatles' Revolver and the Clash's London Calling.
The instinctive response to this outbreak of British euphoria is condescension. (It's fun to switch cultural roles once in a while, no?) Americans who don't love music can sniff at the band's impossible youth--two of the Arctic Monkeys are 19, two are 20--and refrigerator-poetry name. Music lovers need only glance at dusty albums by Oasis, Super Furry Animals, the Prodigy and Bloc Party to remind themselves that the Brits routinely mistake mediocrity for greatness. Here's the thing, though: this time there's no mistake. Whatever People Say I Am, due out in the U.S. on Feb. 21, isn't perfect, but it's a great rock album that spotlights a new lyricist who is whip smart, funny and appealingly dangerous. He does a lot to restore faith in rock's future.
The music itself makes no great claims to originality. The Arctic Monkeys' lo-fi guitar jags are cribbed from the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand (who cribbed them from Lou Reed and Television and so on), and the band's ska rhythms and martial drums come courtesy of the Clash. But singer-guitarist Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, drummer Matt Helders and bassist Andy Nicholson play with a swagger that obliterates any trace of ancestor worship. They aren't referencing anything as they fly through tunes like The View from the Afternoon; they're just playing as many hooks as possible, as fast and as cleanly as they can.