Ten years ago, the iPod helped launch the career of The Fratellis. Lead single “Flathead” was played against the vibrant commercial featuring flashing colours and black silhouettes of hipsters dancing. The song was hypnotic, to the point that I found out the U.S. release date of their debut album, Costello Music and counted down the days until I could hear more music from the band. I had hopes that it wouldn’t be a one-hit wonder album.
What I didn’t expect was that 10 years later, I would still consider it one of the top five albums that I think everyone should own and listen to.
Costello Music is simply a work of art. It is Britpop gone full-tilt. The songs cover the spectrum of genre, punk rock, pop, acoustic ballads, blues and the type of rock that is only inspired by the sex and florescent light of British pubs. Each song sounds completely unique on the album, but never out of place. The energy crafted into each song is on a level only a band like Green Day can accomplish. The guitars are frantic, the bass dances with a playful carnival stride, and the drumming beautifully keeps a manic tempo. For a band consisting of only three members, they make a hell of a lot of noise.
But punk rock can only do so much for a band. What sets it apart is the flourish. This is music you can drink to as much as you dance. Every little thing provides a unique binding that sets the song apart. “Henrietta” features a balto saxophone in lieu of a traditional bass guitar, as well as a vocal solo of the band shouting, “wah wah wah waah” amidst the tepid growls of horny cats. “Whistle for the Choir” sets a mandolin solo between bouts of souldful acoustic guitar. Fan-favorite “Chelsea Dagger” makes what I have heard described as “the dead-man’s chant” the anchor point for the song, so much so that it’s what an arena full of fans chant each time the Chicago Blackhawks score a goal. “The Gutterati?” features a heavy harmonica solo as prominently as it does the raw guitar, and as the song ends after a frantic two and a half minutes of loud guitar and tongue-twister inducing speed choruses, one of the band’s members casually say, “I hate your fucking lyrics”.
What makes the songs endearing, though, is the storytelling. As the rock scene was reinventing itself in the mid-2000’s, The Fratellis didn’t sing about depression or girls – they told stories. There were characters and tales of infidelity. Everyone in the album was born with a pint in their hand. The Chelsea mentioned in “Chelsea Dagger” is a stripper who comes up again in the song “Ol’ Black and Blue Eyes” as Jon Fratelli sings, “And Chelsea says she’s got somewhere to go / And if she does she’s gettin’ there slow / And I would help her out but I’ve got some place to be”.
“For the Girl” is a jangling punk song about falling in love with a girl at a concert. The verse and chorus move at a break-neck pace, backed with “la la las” and a sliding guitar. The song features a setting and paints the scene perfectly for the whirlwind romance of bad ideas as Jon sings, “Well she said I know but I just can’t tell everything you’ve just been saying / Lucy was there as well in the dark, the kids in the band were playing / No one can hear a word or tell what the girl was singing / She must have been 16 or 18 or just past caring”.
“Got Ma Nuts From a Hippie” is perhaps the single best song ever written about drug use. It’s sleazy, angsty, paranoid and ends with the main character not sure what is happening until he wakes from his stupor to find himself in the back of a van with a girl he met at a pub. “I listened with my ears but I couldn’t hear what she was saying / And I guess she talked with her mind, but I didn’t want to seem too unkind so I just laughed / And kept my eyes peeled to the door, wondering what I was there for / But it’s alright…I got my nuts from a hippie in a camper van on Saturday night”.
The album is a gritty tale of drunken nights out, looking for romance and finding it in strippers. The songs are a series of short stories, but none fall the way you would expect. There is never a happy ending, there is never a cliché version of romance. The characters stumble through the streets, hate the music they’re listening to in pubs, and just want to get laid. Like the songs themselves, they’re full of energy and not quite sure what to do with it. But it’s that uncertainty that makes the songs so real and liveable. You can picture each one, where it takes place, and the characters talking to each other as another round of pints line the table around them.
Costello Music is an album unlike any other. It’s a story of young Englishmen trying to figure themselves out in a world they can barely stand up straight in. Their stories don’t end perfectly, but they end the way they should – in utter, magical chaos.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has listened to Costello Music almost weekly for ten years. That is just absurd. Also, the band changes tempo when playing live to make the songs bluesier sometimes. How neat!