- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Arctic MonkeysHumbugDomino Records

It’s an odd thing to say about a young band, but the music of the Arctic Monkeys holds up remarkably well. The insistent bass riffs of the band’s 2006 debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” are still compulsively listenable.

The funk-infused riffs of the group’s sophomore album, “Favourite Worst Nightmare” from 2007, still bounce playfully from intense bursts of energy to half-time walking beats. That sound thrived on the balance between frontman Alex Turner’s playful Yorkshire accent; his biting, cynical lyrics; and the tension between the band’s bubble-gum melodic hooks, anchored with just a hint of post-punk dirge.

The Sheffield quartet strikes a very different balance on its third album. “Humbug” is cooler and smoother than its predecessors and tinged with a mood of foreboding. While the Arctic Monkeys’ two albums dwelt, perhaps excessively, on the phenomenon of their own success, “Humbug” seems detached from the echo chamber of the British pop scene.

Both Mr. Turner’s accent and his fondness for down-market British slang are in retreat here. Mr. Turner himself recently garnered a raft of tabloid mentions when it was revealed that he had bought a flat in Brooklyn to spend more time with his girlfriend, television host Alexa Chung.

“Humbug” itself was recorded stateside, with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age producing. We’re a long way from “Mardy Bum,” indeed.

There’s a lot more air in Mr. Turner’s vocals and more density to the orchestrations than before. Bassist Nick O’Malley adds a layer of distortion to the sound, where once there was a ska-inflected tonal flair. The heavy-metal chain-saw effect comes across on songs including “Crying Lightning,” the first single off the album. Mr. Turner whispers and croons here and there to add sonic texture to the neo-grunge vibe. Guitarist Jamie Cook plays around the edges with twangy, sustained chords that shimmer against the gloomy backdrop. “My Propeller” has a hollow, menacing sound that hints at Mr. Homme’s influence. The grinding guitar assault sounds like a speed-metal riff played at half speed on a turntable, but this is balanced by the occasional falsetto backing vocal line from drummer Matt Helders.

“Secret Door” opens as a kind of glam waltz with an organ and thereminlike synth effect that is joined by a heavy tom-tom beat. “Potion Approaching” is the most unremittingly grim track. Mr. Turner adopts a fast-talking vocal style, as if struggling to keep up with the furious guitar and rapid-fire drums.

There’s also a bit of a soft side here. “The Fire and the Thud” offers some rock ‘n’ roll romance and a soft snare-drum backbeat. Mr. Turner coos his lovelorn lyrics, and even the eerie backing vocals can’t conceal the sweetness of lines such as, “But if it’s true you’re gonna run away/ Tell me where/ I’ll meet you there.”

It’s refreshing to see a band that basically was shot out of a cannon by the British music press turn its back on the formula that attracted its early admirers. “Humbug” isn’t exactly a farewell to Brit pop, but it does represent the Arctic Monkeys’ willingness to mine new influences and take stylistic chances as it goes about building an impressive body of work.

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