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The Cesarians
Pure White Speed Richard Fontenoy , October 1st, 2015 08:29

Both denizens and doyens of the demi-monde, The Cesarians are possessed by a febrile sensuality that sends fingernails scraping down the spine. They promise either a switchblade, or some kind of pleasure (quite possibly illegal in certain administrations) awaiting at the climax. One part Bob Fosse's Cabaret, several parts booze and amphetamines, all-encompassing in the breadth of the whole cloth from which their sound is cut and those depths which they are, if not exactly happy to plunge to, then content at least to embrace wholeheartedly during the descent.

Enough comparisons have been made  already to the usual besuited culprits – Nick Cave, Tindersticks, Arab Strap – and the ever-present traces of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill can be discerned without difficulty in the taproom sawdust. While front man Charlie Finke (whose former band Penthouse were an energetic London fixture in the 90s) has all the charismatic characteristics of all the above and more and a voice to match, The Cesarians are very much a band who step out of the shadows on their own terms. Justine Armatage's arrangements of piano and strings collide head-first with growling bass and bursts of noise rock and brass corruptions in a heady brew which has all the knockout punch of home-brewed liquor, but of the finest distillation qualities available to depraved, beautiful humanity.

Only their second album in six years, Pure White Speed comes on as hard and fast as its name implies and is equally prone to sudden mood swings and destined for an inevitable, self-examining crash. The band have cycled new members, brought in a bass guitar (an instrument they were long famous for abhorring, but times change) and honed their sound to straight razor-sharpness on the road to the point where their assurance – always present, though undercut with an ever-present self-doubt – is now delivered with a yet-more confident swagger, though one which always seems one the verge of brittle collapse.

The bristling opening of 'Meltdown' and a rejigged brass-heavy prowl through perennial Cesarians favourite 'Woman' shake out the cuffs and put the alligator shoes on notice for the suave turnaround of 'She Said'. Here, the object of Charlie's naked desire – "I need booze, I need-a sex", he demands – while possessing all the qualities our literary rockstar hero could want – "She ain't no retro, she ain't no hetero, she checking Penthouse while riding on the Metro" – rebuffs him with a heartily dismissive "Just fuck off" chorus that's designed to get the crowd chanting in gleeful unison, swiftly, repeatedly and definitively undercutting his lustful male gaze. Unabashed, he soon declares "I am your god" before leading the juddering, organ-swirled 'Creation Theory' in a car-crash slam-dance into the sinister stalker stomp of 'Manquake', and it's surely no coincidence that the refrain veers into a sleazy nod towards Beck's 'Loser' as Charlie announces repeatedly with sinister confidence, "I'm in your house, wearing black; throw me out, I'll come back".

Just like amphetamines, though, there's a flipside, a necessary change in mood over the second half of the album, back-pedalling in paranoiac pizzicatos and melancholy piano. Charlie waxes lyrically Shakespearian, the Vocoded chorus of the title track horripilating chemically as the orchestrations tiptoe cautiously through an imminent comedown, gingerly feeling for the dregs of a buzz gone cold and dissolving into post-binge entropy. Where the first part was stoked up and pushy, the second swirls on eddies of genuine vulnerability and areas of nagging doubt familiar to anyone with an iota of self-reflection, regardless of their experience of the ups and downs of amphetamine consumption.

This finely judged progression is the album's greatest strength. As Charlie sings on the song of the same name, 'Everything Dies'; and there's even an acoustic guitar in there as his voice soars among an almost ecstatic elegy for lost days and the dearly departed, human and canine. But it's far from mawkish, just a tenderly sad companion to the expansive vistas of 'Control', which nags at the same peripheral showbiz visions as the recurring theme from Snuff Box and with a similarly bleak outlook to that most bizarre of black TV comedies. "You're never young for ever, no matter how you try", croons Charlie as The Cesarians explode into an uplifting resurgence of brass and strings that announces their determination to give eternal life a damn good crack, no matter what the cost.