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Wild Beasts
Two Dancers Luke Turner , August 4th, 2009 09:35

Potassium Bromide was first developed as a sedative during the 19th Century. Like many such drugs, it had the side effect of reducing male sex drive and erectile efficacy. During the Second World War this led to a popular rumour that officers were slipping the stuff into soldier's tea to calm them down. While this has never been proven, those of a conspiratorial bent could be forgiven for suspecting that record label bosses have recently been following the lead of dastardly Majors and spiking the riders of guitar-toting British males, so horrifically clumsy and half-cocked have been their attempts at engaging with the carnal.

Curiously, it seems to be Laurence Bell and the Domino stable who've refused to feed their artists the emasculating brew. But where Franz Ferdinand promised to make music for girls to dance to, they've at times merely glanced shyly across a crowded room. And for all his lyrical cunning, Alex Turner lacks sensitivity and grace.

It's their labelmates Wild Beasts who have the sly eye, an appreciation of the bawdy and a louche demeanour without coming across as, at best, cheap bottom pinchers, or at worse, thinly veiled misogynists. The hints were there in their debut long-player Limbo, Panto, but if that was an album all about the heady joys of nascent virility - "brave and bulging" indeed - Two Dancers is the sound of discovering the responsibility and vulnerability that goes with a pair of swinging glands. In 'Hooting And Howling' Wild Beasts are entirely aware that the mating game is "A crude art, a bovver boot ballet - equally elegant and ugly."

Where at times on Limbo the odes to failing football clubs and "the young spirit of sin" scratched at the surface, Two Dancers explores a more personal world. Although Hayden Thorpe's lyrics might seem preposterous to naive ears, his audacity is to be admired. Who wouldn't raise their sherry to a man who rhymes "brutes" and "in cahoots", or links the girls of Shipley, Hounslow and Roedean in his amorous intent? Then there's the wordplay: "This is a booty call; my boot up your arse hole" or, "We're all quiffed and cropped, this is our lot, we hold each other up heavy with hops," just two of the lines here present that see Thorpe out-writing the moribund, mealy-mouthed lads of The Twang, Enemy, View and so on.

His lyricism — influenced, according to recent interviews, by writers such as Rimbaud as much as his surroundings — is reminiscent of Catholic teacher turned folk singer Jake Thackray. There's even a hint of the sea shanties collected and sung by AL Lloyd and Ewan MacColl in the middle of the 20th century, where a superficial libidinous and thirsty bawdiness to the words belied a thoughtful desire for affection. And, like a Mark E Smith brought up surrounded by shit-dotted fields and nursing first hangovers from rich ale, rather than post-industrial wrack, super-strength lager, and cheap speed, there's a linguistic identity unique to the group.

All this creates an atmosphere that's entirely timeless. Curiously, these lyrics of ne'er-do-wells, lovelorn exposition and carousing would suit Regency bucks and 50s Teddy Boys, rough-handed sailors on shore leave with balls as blue as the ocean they've returned from, as well as they do the present day.

Of course, dexterous lyricism and arch concept would be naught without the ditties to back 'em up and, fortunately, Wild Beasts truly sound like little else. Their songwriting now has a focus and maturity that only comes with hard graft, pushing yourself to the limit, and exploring new sounds.

So the hints of a disco Talk Talk at early live outings of this material have developed into a record that nods as cleverly to the fellows in the dance booth as anything you'll hear all year. Whoever decreed that guitar groups attempting to provoke a wiggle had to be all about lumpen bagginess? From the first rumbles of 'The Fun Powder Plot' through to the piano and high hat of 'Hooting & Howling', Two Dancers is carried along by simple yet powerful basslines, unflashy drums and guitar used for dry and percussive crackling as much as melody. The structure of the album is perfectly balanced, jaunty moments like 'All The Kings Men' juxtaposed with the growling 'Two Dancers (I)' and the world-weary meandering of 'Two Dancers (II)'.

And let's not forget that where most groups are lucky to have one member who doesn't sound like a hound's flatulence when he opens his mouth, Wild Beasts are blessed with two corking sets of tubes. Hayden Thorpe's gymnastics might attract the attention, but they're ably supported by the rich tones of Tom Fleming, notably on 'All The Kings Men'.

It's here, too, that Wild Beasts saucy lyrics and quest for eroticism in their music avoids becoming boorish. These 'Beasts are slippery, as fey as they are rogueish. Thorpe might explore masculinity, but the delicacy of the music and the at times almost camp interchange of the vocals exposes flaws and sensitivity, rather than reveling in caddish behaviour. Thorpe is never blindly celebrating the joy of the rut but, like the best poetic explorers of the male condition (Leonard Cohen, Aidan Moffat), reflects the pitfalls as much as the pleasures. Indeed, whether or not Thorpe is assuming a character, the closing track 'Empty Nest' seems to reflect a yearning for lost innocence: "goinggoinggone/and suffering alone/your bowl emptied out/all your secrets known."

In this flawless peach of a record, Wild Beasts pay close attention to the fundamental rules of seduction: they offer something different and new, devilishly handsome but aware of their vulnerabilities, and possessed of an enticingly empty dancing card. Oh Wild Beasts, come clasp us close to your sturdy chests, and do your very, very worst.

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