Ending a low-key decade of Felt that produced a sizable catalogue of atmospheric pop in stylistic tribute to Tom Verlaine, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, Lawrence — the prolific but retiring Birmingham singer/guitarist whose unused surname is Hayward — chose a different fabric for his next endeavor. Gathering up a bunch of studio players, he took a splashy dip into ironic glam-rock revisionism with the wry and enormously entertaining Denim. More involved and philosophically purposeful than the similarly motivated Pooh Sticks, Denim fields an uncomplicated rhythm-guitar crunch, dippy synthesizer sounds and the giddy, kidney-punch production style that typified 1973-75 British chart pop (the memory banks of Gary Glitter, Hot Chocolate, Mott the Hoople, Mud, Sparks and Paper Lace heat up here) to present Lawrence’s idiosyncratic cultural perspective, which identifies music-but not just any old music-as the essence of young life.
Back in Denim‘s dreamy eight-minute centerpiece, “The Osmonds,” vividly evokes the British ’70s with a stream of cringeable references-including Chicory Tip, the I.R.A., crushed velvet flares, Lieutenant Pigeon, left-over hippies, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Bell Records-and topping off the tour de farce with a passing quotation from David Essex’s “Rock On.” Having identified an era he at least claims to like, Lawrence then sets about carefully rejecting everything else. The CD-ending “I’m Against the Eighties” announces, “I’m sick of winklepicker kids Mary Chain debris…singers with nothing to say…Duran Duran fake make-up boys.” In “Middle of the Road,” a rewrite of Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner,” he goes further, offering a centrist’s opposition to everything indulgent, historical or gritty in pop’s past. He rails at Chuck Berry, the Stones, Phil Spector, early Dylan, guitar licks, soul and spliffs with snobby vitriol. If the music weren’t so delicious-Lawrence has his finger right on the twitching pulse of this cadaver-such arrogance might be irritating, but Denim is so well-made and sublimely thought through that even indefensible perversity suits it fine.
Lawrence then spent some time in New York City, thawing out the band in 1996 with Denim on Ice. None the worse for wear, Denim fixes sharply on a new set of targets-“The Great Pub Rock Revival,” punk history (“Jane Suck Died in 77”), city planners (“Council Houses”), offering surprisingly rough and blunt views of sex and abortion (“Brumburger,” “Grandad’s False Teeth”) and debauchery (“Glue and Smack”). The musical span is likewise broader: Denim affects a jaunty Gilbert O’Sullivan bop in “Mrs Mills,” goes all drippy for the maudlin “Synthesizers in the Rain” and apes Devo in “Shut Up Sidney,” a comical spew against techno-pop and other chart abominations. “Best Song in the World” draws uncomfortably near Poohville, but Lawrence’s distinctively inquisitive voice and the project’s exquisite musicianship keeps Denim firmly sewn to its own odd domain.