As one of England’s most musical agents provocateurs, Luke Haines has built a large catalog of some of the most willfully off-kilter yet oddly compelling pop manifestos set to record. As leader of the selfconsciously named Auteurs, the classically trained artiste wrote and played Bowiesque guitar pop that traded in some of the superstar’s glam for a more salaciously literate Wildean romp through pop and rebel culture.
With its disciplined guitar, piano and strained vocals, the group’s 1993 debut, New Wave, is the place to start. Its dozen tracks capture Haines’ view of the hollowness of modern British life: the arrestingly lethargic single “Showgirl,” the hypnotic “How Could I Be Wrong” and the catchy class warfare anthem “Valet Parking.” Guest cellist James Banbury’s lithe dips and swoops adorn the songs like costume jewelry, while the sympathetic rhythm section (bassist Alice Readman and drummer Glenn Collins) never over-asserts itself. The album also garnered the group Mercury Prize consideration for British album of the year in 1993 (they lost out to Suede).
Preceded by the rousing electric guitar-driven single “Lenny Valentino,” Now I’m a Cowboy is more of the same. Wistful songs about a “New French Girlfriend,” “The Upper Classes” and “Modern History” reveal Haines’ (and co-producer Phil Vinall’s) increasingly sensitive ear for a careful arrangement. With Banbury as a full-time member, the overall sound of the album is cleaner than the debut while lacking some of its energy.
If the Auteurs weren’t up to taking any stylistic leaps on their own, they were ready to let others do so for them. Electronic musician Michael Paradinas (who records under a variety of pseudonyms, including µ-Ziq, Jake Slazenger and Kid Spatula) was initially enlisted to remix a few New Wave cuts; what he did was create a brilliant, sample-driven album. Paradinas is deft at rearranging sounds into highly textural, yet strangely melodic soundscapes. Since the songs on µ-Ziq Vs the Auteurs aren’t listed by name (nor is the origin of each cut’s components), it looks and sounds more like a record by µ-Ziq than the Auteurs.
The Auteurs engaged Steve Albini to helm their third proper effort, After Murder Park and birthed a misanthropic mini-masterpiece. Haines dives into the dark night of soul with such tracks as “Unsolved Child Murder” and “Child Brides,” the raw subject matter counter pointed by Albini’s spacious aural landscape. Although the original single version of “Light Aircraft on Fire” is pretty brisk on its own, the Albini version on the album stresses the angularity of Haines’ guitar line and toughens up the song’s jerky rhythm (but lacks the rousing cello finish of the initial recording). The EP is fleshed out by a 4-track demo of “Buddha” (it appears in finished form on the album), which reveals that Haines was heading in a noisier guitar direction even without Albini’s input, and two non-LP cuts. Points to the band for having the courage to put a new face on its sound.
The Kids Issue EP hails from a John Peel session: the title song, the unreleased “A New Life a New Family” and two After Murder Park songs.
Haines was busy in 1996: in addition to his work with the Auteurs, he recorded a side-project with cellist Banbury as Baader-Meinhof, a funky, self-titled 10-track concept CD that signaled a radical shift in Haines’ musical direction, which he further explored with the icy, electronic Black Box Recorder (which landed Haines into the British Top 10 for the first time in 2000).
The Auteurs brand returned in 1999 for a final album, How I Learned to Love the Bootboys. At the time, Haines described the album as 12 singles (if not hits). But what singles! “The Rubettes,” with its deliberately cloying chorus lifted from the titular band’s 1974 bubblegum hit “Sugar Baby Love,” sets the tone. The title track could easily serve as a soundtrack to a horror movie, while the bizarre “Johnny and the Hurricanes” and the self-aggrandizing “Future Generations” identify Haines as a restless, musical soul, unafraid to tread uncharted territory.
Two solo outings, including a soundtrack to the obscure English indie film Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (the cover photo has an alarmingly spooky-looking Haines holding a placard confirming that “Art Will Save the World”), were released within weeks of each other in the summer of 2001. The thematically linked albums further refined Haines’ electronic approach to songwriting. The Oliver Twist Manifesto derives its clipped, harpsichord-driven sound from an unlikely source: Dr. Dre. The examination of French socialism in “Never Work” and “What Happens When We Die” reveal a softer, less acerbic crease in Haines’ grouchy musical pants. The single “Discomania” appears on both albums in different mixes.
A best-of package due his UK label was 86ed in favor of 2003’s Das Capital: The Songwriting Genius of Luke Haines and the Auteurs. The singer-songwriter re-recorded songs from all his prior albums except those by Black Box Recorder, backed by a full orchestra. The gimmicky career retrospective is as amusing as it is superfluous. There are three new songs (“Satan Wants Me,” “Michael Powell” and “Bugger Bognor”) and a hidden-track medley of string-arranged such Haines highlights as “Housebreaker,” “Back With the Killer Again” and “Tombstone.” (If that weren’t enough, his UK label also pulled together a three-disc career retrospective, Luke Haines Is Dead, before he bolted for his own label.)
Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, notwithstanding a discofied title track, finds our hero in a rockist mood. Typically nostalgic, whether waxing lyrical in the Ray Davies-like “Here’s to Old England” or the entire decade of the 1970s in “Leeds United,” Haines keeps the nasty bits close at hand, mentioning (among others) the Yorkshire Ripper, Jack the Stripper and the disgraced Gary Glitter (“He’s a bad, bad man / Ruining the reputation of the Glitter Band”) in his typical whisper-sung voice as if relaying some form of verboten information on the down low. He even detours to the music hall for the first time on two tracks (“All the English Devils” and “Freddie Mills Is Dead”).