Once upon a time there was a surly misanthrope named Luke Haines: his music was celebrated across the land as a revelatory new national genre, soon to be known far and wide as the proud art of Britpop.
Things didn't stay peachy for long: before anybody knew what was really going on, Haines was kicked to the curb by groups of sickeningly glamorous, gristle-headed young men with better hair, better hooks and a bunch of shit songs about bin men, wallpaper and some bird called Sally who knew it was too late.
With the superficial commercialism behind him, Haines quietly proceeded to utterly destroy the artistic integrity of those same contemporaries who stole his thunder. Most of what you may believe about Haines' ethos and history is likely fabricated by journalists to turn an earnest man's career into something excessively dramatic (and if you hadn't already noticed, this piece is somewhat doing that right now).
Fast forward 20 years from his debut with The Auteurs (1993's New Wave remains a joyous listen) and you'll find Haines as incendiary as ever. Gleaming with hilariously world weary perception, Rock and Roll Animals is a psuedo-kids' adventure wrapped up in a largely acoustic conceptual psychedelia record. The stars of this bitter tale are familiar in name, as the listener is joined by Jimmy Pursey The Fox, Gene Vincent The Cat and a badger called... Nick Lowe.
Set in an alternative version of Walton-on-Thames called Magic Town, the rock n' roll animals are a righteous group of furry friends who fight for rock justice before taking on their true nemesis, a “fuck ugly bird from Tyneside made of steel and wire called The Angel of the North” (possibly alluding to Haines distaste for modern art). Though it may seem a bit thin a concept for a full album, deeper listens reveal this to be something of a personal ode to Haines' childhood and a means to channel vague memories and thoughts into something fun and engaging.
Clocking in at a meagre 32 minutes, it's a tight, direct listen that cleverly compacts as much depth and replay value as any 70 minute rock opera. If as a parent you play this around kids, it's worth noting there's plenty of caustic volition in Haines lyrics, with traditional kids' TV tropes subverted for your pleasure - “You can come around and help out too/ bring some paint and bring some glue/ we can have a lot of fun/ we can rid the streets of the scum in Magic Town” as heard over a jovial melody in the title track.
The use of the three ageing rock stars for the main characters stems from their connection to Walton-on-Thames, with a generally vague link bringing them all together. Haines has explained Pursey lived near Hersham, Nick Lowe having been born there and apparently Gene Vincent stayed in a B&B near to his old home sometime in 1969. While bearing little relevance to the album's story, it's a sweet idea to bring them together as free spirited animals.
Musically, the album tends to flutter between chamber pop and acoustic rock n'roll, with woodwind, chimes and strings liberally applied throughout and the token hand clap hook first used back on New Wave opener 'Show Girl' even making a welcome appearance.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest stars of the album is comedy actress and writer Julia Davis (Nighty Night, I'm Alan Patridge, Four Lions). By drafting in Davis for narrative duties, there's a sense of cohesion and vision that helps everything hang together nicely. As she interjects throughout the album to keep the listener up to date with the goings on in Magic Town, there's a convincing illusion that this really is a proper kids nursery tale and not a oddball rock n' roll record. Her voice is comforting and strong, quite the opposite to Haines' often precarious rambling.
Even at his most unremarkable, it's difficult to direct criticism at Haines' imagination. He's spent the last decade putting out records about British wrestling, the history of the British Isles and an orchestral reinterpretation of past works. There's countless lines on here you'll muse over for their meaning or simply because they made you smile, the 'righteous/ not righteous' moment in closer 'Rock N' Roll Animals in Space' is a hilarious declaration of the true heroes of Haines' taste, with the likes of Led Zepellin and post Brian Jones' Stones coming off a bit worse for wear - “The Stones without Brian Jones were not righteous even though he was probably evil”.
While occasionally irritating with some songs bordering on uncomfortably twee, this is yet another triumph for Haines' extraordinary ability to put out whatever the fuck he wants. It's not a classic and it won't get him back in the NME, but it'll more than entertain those willing to listen.
7Ben Philpott's Score