London’s (by way of Bournemouth) meta-meta Art Brut does the bait-and-switch of wide-eyed innocence and wide-eyed sophistication better than just about any band since the Pooh Sticks. Carried along by the raggy guitar-rock rush of his four bandmates, non-singer Eddie Argos’ broad accent and comical theatricality (“I’ve seen her naked…twice!,” he exults — twice! — in “Good Weekend,” a joyous take on shagging which, in addition to borrowing liberally from the sound of “Cool Jerk,” brilliantly conveys the thrill of having “a brand-new girlfriend”) dresses “Bang Bang Rock & Roll” down like a Fall-inspired larf, a blast of careless amateurism and spirited silliness. But as the themes and referents sink in (and stand out), Argos — who doesn’t sing so much as recount, declaim and chant his lyrics — shifts from Jilted John to Mike Skinner, punching out sharp-eyed (and tart-tongued) commentary on current culture and society. The temptation to figure it all as cheeky self-amusement evaporates in the first track (and first single, a minor chart success in the UK), the self-referential chant of “Formed a Band,” as Argos shouts, “And, yes, this is my singing voice, it’s not irony, it’s not rock and roll, we’re just talking…to the kids.” But this is no “(Theme From) The Monkees,” it’s a lot bigger than that: “We’re gonna be the band that writes the song / That makes Israel and Palestine get along.” With the wide-eyed articulation of a slick teenaged con artist angling to get himself adopted, he needs barely one breezy (spoken) verse to sketch the essential British fantasy of decamping to Southern California: “When I get off that plane, the first thing I’m gonna do is strip naked to the waist and ride my Harley Davidson up and down Sunset Strip…Hmm…I might even get myself a tattoo. My problems are never gonna find me…”
Named for a mid-20th century movement in painting that promoted iconoclasm, Art Brut is a band of strong opinions. They dismiss both modern art and popular culture (“I haven’t read the NME in so long,” Argos declaims) and devote a tense song to the pas de bar fights, but all the cockiness collapses in the sweetly pathetic romantic obsession of “Emily Kane” and the embarrassed impotence/masturbation anecdote of “Rusted Guns of Milan” (at 3:45, the longest track here). Again, the gap between expectations and delivery, the contrast of emotions that go into real life as opposed to pop fantasy, makes this brief but satisfying album a pointed delight.