Badly Drawn Boy debuts well
October 3 saw the American release of an acclaimed British album, "The Hour of Bewilderbeast," the full-length debut from a man who calls himself Badly Drawn Boy. BDB -- presumably no relation to The Dartmouth's own Badly Drawn Girl and Hastily Rendered Boy -- is really Damon Gough, a lad from Manchester, a talented singer and multi-instrumentalist who has been called "the British Beck."
Although at times he can sound very much like that American king of eccentric folk-rock-rap, BDB often seems better qualified for the title of "the British Elliott Smith." Like Smith, he makes music that is clearly folk-inspired yet ranges from dreamy, introspective ballads to exquisite power-pop to a brief, satirical foray into rap.
This range, combined with the fact that he wrote and produced every song (he even wrote some of the string arrangements) and played nearly every instrument on the album, gives him a quality of down-to-earth musical integrity that's rare in mainstream pop.
In fact, he even has the potential to act as an antidote to the mechanical, manufactured pop that continues to top the U.S. charts. BDB's music has all the attributes that could make for not just a great-selling indie record, but perhaps even big-time stardom, a status he is quickly earning in Britain.
With "The Hour of Bewilderbeast," BDB hasn't made an album that breaks many rules or covers new ground, but rather one that covers more familiar musical territory with extraordinary subtlety and earnestness.
His voice sounds a bit like Elliott Smith's -- smooth and dynamic, with a broad range. He uses a falsetto voice sometimes, too, which brings to mind the Britpop of much of the last two decades. The guitar work is fresh and interesting, as is the piano. In fact, BDB doesn't seem more comfortable on one instrument than another -- everything seems to flow naturally.
If there is a drawback to BDB's approach, it is when he tries too hard to be "the British Beck." When he incorporates sonic effects, old sound clips ("I recommend it with relish"?) and unusual, chaotic instrumentation into the mix at the end of "Cause a Rockslide," it sounds too much as if he's trying to fit in with the current trend toward music filled with samples and ambient noise, pulled off better by Beck and by other artists from the Beastie Boys to Radiohead. When he sticks to sincere, acoustic-driven folk-rock and electric-guitar pop, the results are far better.
One of the most immediately likeable songs on "The Hour of Bewilderbeast" is "Another Pearl." This is what a Beck-Elliott Smith duet might sound like: a flowing, thematic vocal track and underlying piano, bass and guitar layers are reminiscent of Smith, but the lyrical content and tweaked-out guitars sound more like the Loser himself. Lyrically, the song has Beck's penchant for beautiful weirdness, with lines like "Follow the circle sur la plage / On a mono-colored trip voyage."
Reviewers have pointed out that the album loosely chronicles the development of a love affair. "Another Pearl," coming in the middle of the album, is the emotional peak of the relationship, with its narrator in a state of total harmony with both his lover and the world around him.
The love story begins with "The Shining," the album's first track. Here the mood is one of overwhelmed infatuation: "Warm sun pours over me," BDB gushes over rhythmic acoustic guitar and a warm French horn and cello. It's an inspired beginning.
Another strong track is "Disillusion," a radio single that provides a tangent worth taking from the mid-tempo indie sounds that dominate the album. With the album running to a full hour, "Disillusion" is a pleasantly surprising standout near the end.
BDB brings in more backup musicians here to create a real electric guitar-driven rock song about the beginning of the end of a relationship. "Why do we have to make it so complicated? / Can't it just be beautiful?" he asks. "Seems you created your own illusion / Fueled by an image of me."
Like many good love stories, "The Hour of Bewilderbeast" comes to an indeterminate ending with "Epitaph," the album closer. This is a starkly produced acoustic tune with birds twittering in the background as BDB sings tells his (ex-?)lover, "I hope you never die."
With eighteen tracks, "Bewilderbeast" covers many miles of musical ground, most of it first-class. If you use MP3s as a way to try out music before you buy the CD, there are other worthwhile tracks to check out, like "Everybody's Stalking" and "Pissing in the Wind."
If you're a fan of well-crafted music, you won't be disappointed. The British magazine "Q" called this album "one of the most delightful British records to emerge in aeons," and they're right. You don't even have to know who Elliott Smith is to appreciate "The Hour of Bewilderbeast." This stuff transcends the indie pop genre and has something to offer to any fan of good music, period.