In the '80s, the British music press coined a new word, "rockist." It was not a compliment. In condemning musicians (and fans) who clung to such now-routine hard-rock notions as rebelliousness, Dionysian lifestyles and guitar solos, anti-rockists had determined that such archetypal rockers as, say, the Rolling Stones had become just as traditional as, say, Tony Bennett. The clean, mechanical sound of synthesized dance pop was the correct new thing.
In recent years, the most publicized British pop music scene has been in the northern city of Manchester, home to producers of stripped-down, spacey "acid house" dance music such as A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State. Yet the biggest Manchester bands are the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, old-fashioned guitar-bass-drums-keyboards groups that could only be called rockist. At first, both bands patently were surrogates for Manchester's hottest bands of the early '80s: The jangling guitars of the Roses recalled the Smiths, while the initial recordings of the Mondays were indebted to New Order's minor-key disco-punk. Both bands subsequently moved toward each other -- which is to say, toward the dance-music consensus that rules the British charts -- but that hasn't changed the essence of the Manchester sound. Acid-house bliss or not, it's still a garage-band town.
Happy Mondays: 'Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches' If rockism is really bad, then the Happy Mondays are the worst. Sloppy, self-indulgent hedonists who flaunt their interest in porn and recreational pharmaceuticals -- and who recorded their latest, "Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches" (Elektra), in hard rock's factory town, L.A. -- the Mondays would seem to be throwbacks in both spirit and sound. Yet there's more to them than getting stoned and celebrating the detritus of late-'60s/early-'70s pop culture, which they do aggressively on "Pills." (The album includes a track called "Kinky Afro," a tribute titled "Donovan," a cover of John Kongos's 1971 hit "Step On," and the propulsive "Dennis and Lois," which features a chant of "right on, right on," while the cover is a collage of garish candy, gum and soft-drink wrappers.)
They may come on like grungy rockers, but the Mondays are actually canny eclecticists. With the help of producer-arrangers Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne, they've crafted a rich, multilayered texture -- incorporating samples, dance beats, soulful backup singers and acoustic-guitar interludes -- without ever sacrificing the greasy energy of their earlier work. The charm of "Pills" is that it sounds simpler and less knowing than it really is; a song such as "Kinky Afro" balances ramshackle rock and precision pop ingeniously and infectiously. It's as if Question Mark and the Mysterians had bulldozed through the global junk-culture village and come out the other side fundamentally unaltered -- but with lots of weird trash stuck to the windshield. Whether that's a path to glory remains to be seen, but "Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches" is definitely one of those albums that opens up new vistas with repeated playings.
Charlatans UK: 'Some Friendly' The Stone Roses spent most of 1990 trying to wriggle out of their pre-superstardom record contract, and into the Roses void slipped the Charlatans (Charlatans UK on this side of the water). Like many new Manchester bands -- including the Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets -- the Charlatans are more keyboard-oriented than the Roses. But the newcomers owe something to their predecessors' atmospheric sound and five-minute-plus neo-psychedelic workouts, and both bands have a gift for melody, though neither's muse is constant enough to support a whole album.
The Charlatans' "Some Friendly" (Beggar's Banquet/RCA) offers neoclassically compact pop numbers ("White Shirt"), as well as songs that are looser and funkier but still tuneful ("The Only One I Know") and longer, spacier excursions ("Opportunity"). But when the quintet claims full residence in the acid house -- as in "Polar Bear" or the instrumental "109 pt2" -- it blurs the line between trancey and merely boring. The album starts strong, but its latter half is redeemed principally by the direct, lively "Sonic," which sounds like a song from "Younger Than Yesterday" with pumping organ replacing the soaring Byrds guitar.
Inspiral Carpets: 'Life' Unlike their brethren -- and despite the obligatory psychedelic light show they dragged along with them when they played the 9:30 club -- the Inspiral Carpets really have only two significant influences: mid-'60s American garage-rock and early-'80s Liverpool's great disciple of mid-'60s American garage-rock, Julian Cope. The songs on "Life" (Mute/Elektra) divide fairly neatly between the two: The ones that are principally chugging organ grooves come from the Yank garage, while the ones that offer a bit more melody are derived from Cope.
At 16 songs long, "Life" offers an oh-you-really-shouldn't-have bounty, but there are engaging examples of both styles. The opening "Real Thing" is an ear-grabbing thumper, while such tuneful tracks as "She Comes in the Fall" (clearly the Carpets' best song yet) and "Commercial Rain" (both British singles) achieve nearly as much with Copean melodies as could Cope himself (or his other most dedicated imitators, the Mighty Lemon Drops). Though the Carpets never wander as far off course as do the Charlatans, neither do they ever threaten to transcend their models. "Nuggets" fans should like "Life" just fine, but it's clearly minor-league stuff.