By: Eric Greenwood
For some odd reason The Charlatans UK have been largely ignored in this country for the better part of their decade-long career. Maybe it"s the curse of using the "UK" tag at the end of their name. No band in history has overcome that to achieve mass commercial success in the United States. But The Charlatans have made a career out of survival, morphing and mutating their sound- never for the sake of fads but to further their sense of musical integrity and exploration. Wonderland is the apex of that seven-album journey. The band"s finest release by far, it"s a swaggering, head-long dive into funk, rhythm and blues, gospel, roots rock and roll, and disco but with a very sleek modern edge.
I"m never one to extol the virtues of back-up soul sister vocals, but I must admit they work here. In a perfect world "You"re So Pretty, We"re So Pretty" would be a radio smash. Lead Vocalist Tim Burgess has discovered his long-dormant falsetto to mesmerizing effect, but the back-up singers are what really add that mid-period Rolling Stones tone that makes the song. It"s a dark electronic groove with sparing guitars, lots of keyboards, and thumping rhythms. Burgess does his best to sound like a coked-out diva with an annoyed affectation that exudes sexuality. The hooks are insanely catchy. I can"t count how many times I"ve repeated this song over the last few weeks.
"Judas" is equally intoxicating. Burgess" falsetto is even more dominant here. Gliding among organs and a funky bass line, its double-tracked gloss instantly recalls Superfly, 1970"s soul. Yes, this is the same band that exploded onto the British "baggy" scene in 1990 with the catchy stoner pop hit, "The Only One I Know." After a few years of mild obscurity in the mid 1990"s (that should in no way reflect the quality of their music at the time) The Charlatans pulled their heads out of the water with the much-heralded Us And Only Us in 1999. The Charlatans of 2001 are all but unrecognizable from any of their previous incarnations, save for Burgess" distinct Brit-pop inflection, but the music more confidant and experimental than ever.
The lead-off single "Love Is The Key" epitomizes their new found bravura. It"s a guitar-charged sexual predator with Burgess doing his best Prince imitation in the verses. The chorus is crackling and those back-up singers surface again to make sure you don"t forget that this is indeed party music. I still can"t believe this is The Charlatans. "A Man Needs To Be Told" is both seductive and soulful. Think David Bowie circa "Young Americans." The band adds a country tinge to the sultry sway while Burgess coos "A young boy once told me I"ll be an old man and I"m only fifteen/it wasn"t part of the plan/it wasn"t part of the dream." Phenomenal stuff to say the least.
The slick R&B luster of "I Just Can"t Get Over Losing You" intermingles perfectly with The Charlatans" boundless dance-rock grooves, revealing how solid the bands" record collections must be. The array of influences here is staggering, but more impressive is the way the band ties it all together on this soon-to-be-classic album. Even the faux-industrial techno edge of the lone instrumental, "The Bell And The Butterfly", fits into The Charlatans new realm of strengths. The trip-hop scuttle of "And If I Fall" hardly even sounds derivative. Burgess" chorus flows so smoothly over the crest of syncopated beats and warm keyboards that you get lost in his synthetic idealism.
Wonderland is the sound of a band at its creative peak. With the bar this high, The Charlatans will be hard-pressed to top themselves. You"ve probably always been slightly aware of The Charlatans but only as another faceless Brit-pop band. The fact that they"ve been around this long should have intrigued you enough to check them out. But, they"ve been one of those bands that seemed comfortable on the periphery. Wonderland should change everyone"s attitude in a hurry. Absolutely, do not miss this album.