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Pulp Power

[whitespace] Pulp Doing the Dishing: The members of Pulp (from left, Mark Webber, Steve Mackey, Jarvis Cocker, Candida Doyle and Nick Banks) turn a wry eye on Britain's repressive sexual attitudes.

Stefan De Batselier



Can the irony age finally be at an end? England's Pulp bucks the electronica craze on 'This Is Hardcore.'

By Gina Arnold

'WAS THE FOOD really awful?" people still ask me when they hear I've just spent a month in England. The answer is no. These days, you can get Starbucks coffee, Ben and Jerry's ice cream and kiwi-strawberry Snapple almost anywhere on the Isle. Indeed, it's almost sad how unforeign England has become. The superficial similarities to America have increased 10-fold in the last five years--and 10 times again since the selection of 40-something, guitar-playing "New Labour" Prime Minister Tony Blair last October.

Blair's election has signified a rebirth of political activism. In the past month, Britain has seen the two biggest protests the country has experienced in two decades in Hyde Park. One was to end the ban on cannabis; the other was a call to reinstate fox hunting.

This is the new Britain under Tony Blair: rich, mobile and seemingly trivial at heart. And a country that is trivial-minded socially is bound to be trivial-minded culturally as well. True, media veneration of the Spice Girls and Oasis has waned considerably of late--Kate Winslet is the Girl of the Period now--but the two groups have left three sinister legacies: xenophobia, a bunch of imitators and the new "djay culture"--"electronica," as it's called in America by those who can't (or won't) differentiate among terms like house, ambient and drum 'n' bass.

The xenophobia is an outgrowth of the Britpop movement, which was in turn co-opted by Blair's New Labour government under the catchall phrase "Cool Britannia." (Everything, it seems, needs a title in England.) Blair's youth, his hip wife and the couple's endorsement of various successful English rock bands and fashion designers have all combined to help sell New Labour to the English public, thus expelling the Conservative Party after almost two decades.

MEANWHILE, the imitators are led by Oasis pals the Verve and by All Saints, a group much like the Spice Girls, only with lamer music. (They cover La Belle's "Lady Marmalade" and the Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge.") That leaves only Radiohead, Cornershop and Pulp to carry the flag for British guitar rock.

Pulp a quirky, 12-year-old band, has steadily grown in popularity, particularly since the infamous moment when its leader, Jarvis Cocker, mooned Michael Jackson on national television in Britain. These days, Pulp is well on its way to becoming the country's best and most revered act of the '90s.

Pulp's new album, This Is Hardcore (Virgin), is, like 1996's Different Class, a highly melodic and strangely poignant rumination on loneliness masquerading as sexual deviation. "Oh baby," sings Cocker on "Fear," "you can't get anyone to come in the sack/and here comes another panic attack." The strange thing is, although he's a rock star, Cocker sounds like he knows the feeling. He sings with empathy, not with derision.

Writing about sex is nothing new for Pulp, whose songs have often touched on naughty bedroom behavior and the repression of English life: voyeurism ("Babies"), first-time sex ("Do You Remember the First Time?") and on the title cut of the new album, hard-core pornography.

Despite the seamy subject matter, there's always been something oddly touching about Cocker's take on the topic, and never more so than on This Is Hardcore. "I used to try very hard to make friends with everyone on the planet," he sings on "Party Hard." "I've seen you havin' it, havin' it, but now you've just had it."

"I'm not Jesus, though I have the same initials," go the lyrics to the ultra-Kinks-like little number "Dishes." "I am the man who stays at home and does the dishes." And on the back of the album, Cocker has placed the following good advice: "It's OK to grow up--just as long as you don't grow old." He's a hard guy not to like.

Reliance on a frontman with personality and on songs that have narrative is not the only way that Pulp is a very trad band. Its instrumentation--guitars, bass, drums, keyboards--for example, is pretty straightforward for 1998, although the record also contains lots of symphonic, orchestral arrangement, in the manner of the Verve's Bittersweet Symphony.

Cocker's voice and demeanor are highly reminiscent of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music--not bad role models, if you can pull it off--while his lyrics hearken back to the hyper-Englishness of Ray Davies.

ALL OF THESE qualities put the band in direct contrast to most of Britain's younger, hipper groups--the Stereophonics, Alabama Three, Roni Size, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads--who characterize Britain's latest movement, titled "decks 'n' drums."

Of these acts, Propellerheads (the collaborative name of Alex Gifford and Will White) are the most ambitious representatives of decks 'n' drums currently on the market--and the most well-received.

Their new album, Decksandrumsandrockandroll (Dreamworks), contains a wonderful single called "History Repeating" that is thus far the most mainstream-sounding techno record on the market. Featuring a vocal by Shirley Bassey (who sang "Goldfinger"), it could well be the "Walk This Way" of electronica.

That said, Propellerheads may not herald the breakthrough the British music press desires. After all, the group's main inspiration is James Bond theme music, as heard on the Bassey number and the tracks "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "Spybreak." Besides being a rather limited wellspring of possible samples, that's hardly a unique source. Portishead has been lifting Bond theme music for years. So did the Sneaker Pimps on their wonderful 1997 single "Six Underground." And Moby just issued a medley of Bond theme remixes on I Love to Score.

Propellerheads are neither as ambient as DJ Shadow nor as disco sounding as Moby or the Crystal Method, and the effect is much more appealing. Moreover, the group's guest stars--De La Soul, the artist blah blah blah Prince, the Jungle Brothers and Bassey--are far more original than those used on Prodigy's album Fat of the Land.

The result is a deeper and livelier record, one that may even be assimilated by fans of more mainstream genres. And according to various English pundits, the current underground dance-club/rave scene is as meaningful to its participants as punk or grunge was to its adherents and will be just as influential in the long term.

But I find this notion hard to credit. English djay culture is absolutely steeped in drugs--mostly E and its derivatives. With few exceptions, the music truly needs that all-night drug boost to be understandable and enjoyable. Besides, whatever the media say, it's dance music, pure and simple, and dance music has never had a lasting shelf life.

Pulp, on the other hand, with its songs and melodies and aching, heartfelt empathy with the ordinary world, is a sticker. At the end of This Is Hardcore, Cocker sings, "Irony is over, bye, bye, bye, bye." Let's hope he's right.

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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