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Glasvegas – Glasvegas

on January 05, 2009, 10:00am
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The name says it all: Glasvegas. It’s either a pun on the word “Glaswegian”- used to describe things that come from Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland-or a reference to an Irish-language TV talent show called Glas Vegas. And just like the band, it’s a hyper-regional name that straddles the line between clever appropriation and outright plagiarism; a name which, for those on this side of the Atlantic puddle, may be impossible to fully understand.

At surface level, the band has a cheap, Xeroxed appeal-what with cute woodcut cover art, a generic UK indie-rock sound, song titles like “Flowers and Football Tops”, and charming accents that may require subtitles. But much like equating a picture postcard of Glasgow with the city itself, basing an opinion of this band on first impressions is a dangerous mistake.

On first listen, Glasvegas isn’t much to shout about. Wedding an epic, U2-esque approach to guitar with big New Order-style bass lines, and slapping on a few Coldplay-sized choruses, Glasvegas manages to whip up an album that sounds enough like every other UK arena rock band to move a few thousand copies, but not really good enough to warrant repeated listens. Singer-guitarist James Allan at first appears to be the only thing really going for the band-he’s got a powerful voice that sets him apart from the glut of somebody-needs-a-blood-transfusion vocalists currently plaguing the British Isles. The only problem is that it’s nearly indecipherable.

Because of the required research to understand any of Allan’s lyrics (due to not only his accent, but the pervasive cultural references he makes), their immediacy is lost on the American ear: and what comes to the forefront instead isn’t quite so elegant. Without the benefit of a lyrics sheet, Glavegas comes off as a collection of songs that manage to all sound exactly the same, while being derivative of nearly every band in the major canon of British indie rock. Derivative, as in stealing.

The band seems to operate under the assumption that if you reference from everywhere, you can call it original, sneaking in bits from “Speak to Me/Breathe”, “Mr. Moonlight”, and a stomach-churningly lame quote from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on “S.A.D. Light”. The worst offense is easily “Flowers and Football Tops”, where the band steals the verse from The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Taste of Cindy”, then apes My Bloody Valentine with an echoing, fuzzed-out cadenza reminiscent of the break in “You Made Me Realize”, and then Allan sings the chorus of “You Are My Sunshine” as a coda.

All this is worth slogging through to get to “Stabbed”. And although it does nothing to alleviate the band’s musical kleptomania, the song is so good that it re-contextualizes the entire album. Over a sample, this time of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, Allan rattles off a bone-chilling backalley meditation describing a run-in with the Glasgow youth gang Young Baltic Fleet. “I’m gonna get stabbed,” he mutters. “The Baltic Fleet/are up my arse/no cavalry could ever save me/I’m gonna get stabbed.” Backed up by just the piano, and forced to speak instead of sing, Allan’s performance on “Stabbed” forces the listener to get past the limitations of the band and concentrate on the lyrics. Which changes absolutely everything.

A second listen to Glasvegas (this time with a lyrics sheet) paints a harrowing picture of Glaswegian street violence. The aforementioned “Flowers and Football Tops” isn’t the limp-wristed indie drivel it seems from the surface; beneath its whoa-whoa verses and baby-baby choruses, it’s about draping flowers and Celtic Football Club jerseys over the grave of Kriss Donald, a Glasgow teen kidnapped, stabbed 13 times, doused in gasoline, and burned to death by a Pakistani gang in 2004.

Unfortunately, the best parts of Glasvegas may be completely lost on Americans. Between his thick Glasgow accent, and ubiquitous cultural references, Allan’s lyrics, which really are the main attraction, are nearly unintelligible without liner notes. The worst case is “Polmont on My Mind”, where the opening line “fate, fatal fate” sounds more like “fay, fay, oh, fay,” and nowhere is it explained that the Polmont in question is Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution at Polmont, where the song’s protagonist is about to take up residence, ostensibly on a murder rap.

There’s something uniquely cultural going on in Glasvegas-something uniquely Scottish. And no amount of research or explanation can replace that sense of immediacy that a first hand knowledge of Glasgow dialect and culture would probably lend to this album. Maybe, for Scottish people, this album could be a meaningful cultural touchstone. But to the American listener, it’s more like the equivalent of playing “American Ruse” by the MC5 for someone in Scotland in 1970 and expecting them to be able to relate to it.

Maybe a global release and an upcoming American tour will be just the miracle cure this band needs, as it’s hard to imagine them getting any more insular. Maybe they’ll recoil and fall apart. Either way, Glasvegas will be a band to watch in the new year because if these guys manage to tighten up and get their songwriting sea legs, they could turn into something really special.

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