Six months ago, Arctic Monkeys was barely known in this country, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of next big things the British press props up, if only to tear down a few months later. The hype has crossed the Atlantic, as the young Sheffield quartet (owners of the bestselling debut in U.K. history) quickly sold out their short U.S. tour, with scalpers getting $80 a ticket for Wednesday’s show at the Henry Fonda Musicbox.
But the band that took the stage for an hourlong, encoreless set appeared untouched by all the hubbub. In fact lead singer Alex Turner was openly hostile to the audience in the early going. It was as if he was out to prove that the title of Arctic Monkeys’ Domino album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” was not just some idle boast. If people are calling his band something special, he’ll just have to prove them wrong.
“You don’t move much out there, do you,” he sniffed after a lackluster run-through of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” looking like he’d rather be anywhere other than on that stage.
Matters improved later in the set, but it was hard to square the generally uninspired performance with the album’s youthful energy and crackling intelligence.
Turner’s canny songs, packed with melody and incident, false endings, extended codas and insistent, stop-time riffs, are draughts of pub culture as dark and rich as a pint of Guinness, sung in a northern accent that’s a serrated nasal whine.
Musically, the band draws on all the usual post-punk suspects; what sets it apart is Turner’s vocals, which bounce off the choked guitar rhythms and Andy Nicholson’s high-on-the-neck, New Order-style basslines in a manner that lets you know he’s learned as much from hip-hop as he has from classic rock.
Maybe this was an off night; perhaps, for all the sales and hype, the band has been brought up too quickly and isn’t ready to headline.
But with so many quick to compare the Arctic Monkeys to the Stones, Kinks, Who and other classic British bands, it’s worth remembering that one thing that set those bands apart from the Pretty Things, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel and nameless other acts who arrived in the States on a wave of press hype was that they were as brilliant onstage as in the studio. With only Wednesday’s show (and last weekend’s mediocre perf on “SNL”) to go on, Arctic Monkeys have a long way to go.
Arctic Monkeys play Gotham’s Webster Hall March 25.