Wild Beasts Limbo, Panto

[Domino; 2008]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: pop, music hall, dance rock
Others: Franz Ferdinand, Tom Waits

For those not already familiar with Wild Beasts, I bet the typical reaction to the first few seconds of Limbo, Panto, their debut album, consists of little more than a perplexed “huh.” Because, prior to the first measure of “Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy,” one inclined to generalize might take a cue from the band’s brutish moniker and assume Wild Beasts consists of another bevy of greasy goof-offs attempting to capitalize on the current fixation with scuzzy, lo-fi rock in the vein of Times New Viking and Eat Skull. But Wild Beasts are actually based out of England. And, surprisingly, they don’t sound like just about every other band from England, despite the notoriously whorish reputation of British press like New Musical Express, who recently championed Wild Beasts. So, contrary to expectation, perfunctory lyrics lamenting one’s perpetual state of forlornness crooned over eerily soaring melodies à la Coldplay and/or Keane (the two being practically interchangeable) do not abound.

Truth be told, one is hard-pressed to determine whether Wild Beasts sound like anybody. Sonically, the band displays a penchant for the cabaret, gamboling to and fro behind the domineering flamboyance of lead singer Hayden Thorpe. And from this angle, comparing Wild Beasts to Tom Waits, another patron of colorful histrionics (or at the very least paralleling them to the persona expressed through Rain Dogs) wouldn’t be unreasonable. But as to what the band retains as its actual credo? Well, I still haven’t managed to hurdle that “huh.”

This isn’t necessarily a shortcoming on the band’s part, however. (After all, Wild Beasts’ distinctive style shouldn't shoulder the blame for the observer’s pleasantly surprising inability to pinpoint, but rather the market in which they operate that continues to shamelessly bolster carbon copies.) The most brazen aspect of Limbo, Panto, aside from the caffeinated, cavorting theatrics heaved through each song, is the absence of that excessive self-absorption so apparent in the shticks of most of their peers. Even while the lyrical content primarily flows from introspect, Wild Beasts never take themselves too seriously. So when lines such as “Though as a boy I had bowl-cut brilliance that could carve up any conundrum/ But now dunno how that could possibly have been/ I’ve shorn and I’ve sheened and I’ve Brylcreemed have I not?/ I’ve brawn and I’ve brain and of both I’ve shame have I not?” are ironically chirruped in shimmering, high-pitched trill, the result is not only comicality; it’s flat-out refreshing.

But to bestow praise upon Limbo, Panto only for the flubs it manages to sidestep would overlook what merits it parades. Seamlessly meshing elements of seemingly disparate derivatives such as dance rock, twee pop, highlife, and the arrant jauntiness sprung from the music hall tradition, Wild Beasts have yielded something entirely unique with astounding maturity, considering the average age of the foursome is only 21 years. This finely crafted, homogeneous mixture boasts such idiosyncrasy that it conjures up visual backdrops ranging immensely in both setting and tone: from a carnival fairground dotted with carousels and acrobats to a bacchanalian séance conducted round cauldron bound townsfolk to a side-street vaudeville sketch.

With risk, though, some patchiness is expected, especially on a debut album. The most noticeable of these missteps comes by way of Thorpe’s vocals: the band manages to snooker themselves by overextending the use of his howling, warbling, operatic falsetto. Thorpe’s approach ranges from novel to unusual to borderline annoying, comparable to Daniel Smith’s squeaks or John Darnielle’s indecisiveness in yelling off-kilter or just singing. In this, Limbo, Panto is far from perfect, but the promise it holds and the aforementioned caliber to which it already meets greatly exceeds any reason it provides for complaint.

As a whole, Limbo, Panto’s uniqueness translates to something remarkably special and substantial rather than mere luster. So here’s hoping the album is not a preliminary flash in the pan for an otherwise promising band and that enough people recognize this wit and ingenuity for Wild Beasts to continue honing their skill.

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