Alfie — it’s such a quintessentially British name for a quintessentially British band, what with it being the title of a quintessential British film starring the quintessential British actor, Michael Caine. According to the band, though, the name wasn’t lifted from the movie, but was called out by one of the members during a brainstorming session, and “was the first one that didn’t sound like shit”.
Charmed or cursed, depending on one’s view of what attention from the British music press does to a career, Alfie had its very first gig covered by NME. The long-lived music magazine just happened to be popping in on random shows in Liverpool, Glasgow, and Alfie’s hometown of Manchester, when it discovered the fledgling group and reported on its new discovery. What NME found that night was a group that aimed to merge the experimental tendencies of groups like Tortoise and Mogwai with classic pop melodicism.
To a certain extent, Alfie accomplishes this on its full-length debut, if you happy with you need do nothing. Like Badly Drawn Boy, co-owner of the record label on which it records, Alfie isn’t afraid to toy with orchestration, even hiring a cellist as a full-fledged member of the band. While there are a few warped pop flourishes a la the Turtles, however, Alfie’s music also incorporates ’60s-style psychedelia and mines the meandering territory of contemporary folk as defined by acts like the Beta Band and the aforementioned Tortoise. Because Alfie draws from so many influences, it sounds like a lot of things, but “original” isn’t necessarily one of them.
The disc kicks off with the sprawling, druggy epic “Bookends”. What’s immediately compelling about the song is how much it sounds like the Charlatans’ “Subtitle” with a few more psychedelic touches — or how much it sounds like the Charlatans, period. Singer Lee Gorton’s nasally vocals so closely mimic those of his Mancunian pop predecessor Tim Burgess that it’s easy to imagine he had a voice transplant. In fact, if you happy with you need do nothing could be the album the Charlatans would have made if they’d forgone all that silly surviving and growing nonsense, gone on hiatus after the fall of Madchester, and were just now making a comeback. Come to think of it, “You Make No Bones”, with its fusion of Stonesy blues posturing with a danceable beat, could even pass as a track by the “surviving and growing” version of the Charlatans.
That’s not to say, however, that every track sounds the same, or sounds like the Charlatans. One odd little nugget is “2 Up 2 Down”, which kicks off with a snappy acoustic guitar line before erupting into a gorgeous lounge throwback, complete with horns. “Check the Weight” begins as a melancholy, baroque-folk ballad, but as new instruments swell into the mix, the song develops a sunnier sound poised somewhere between jazz and a marching band.
After contending with the bloated “earnest” rock of Travis and Coldplay and watching Radiohead go off the art-rock deep end, it’s nice to see Alfie’s almost quaint concern with simple acoustic guitar lines, pretty horn arrangements, and meandering melodies. Even so, Alfie comes off like it’s reacting against those pretensions instead of standing for a new kind of music. Like so many British bands of the past two decades, Alfie seems to be tied to its moment, making music that is so much about its particular time and place that it loses its potency outside that context. It won’t translate well to most Americans, and it probably won’t last, but Alfie’s music sounds good while it’s on.