When the Libertines burst onto the British music scene as the latest contender to vie for supremacy in the retro garage rock revival, they were heralded as England's answer to the Strokes, but this comparison serves only to diminish a band that's far more than a foreign foil for Casablancas and company.
The fact of the matter is that the Libertines are a considerably more gifted ensemble than their American counterparts. Whereas the songwriting duo of Doherty and Barat tackle everything from punk to pop to hard rock to heavy metal and even balladry, the stylistically static Strokes rigidly adhered to a basic guitar rock blueprint, eschewing diversity and seldom deviating from their rather narrow comfort zone.
Moreover Doherty and Barat are far more adept at songwriting than the precocious but limited Casablancas, penning songs with myriad hooks, stellar melodies and terrific riffs. Each individual track sounds unique and fully fleshed out, dispelling any potential for the monotony that afflicts the Strokes' regrettably same-sounding track sequences.
Most important, however, is the fact that in the retro garage rock movement the Strokes always felt like skilled impersonators, with their efforts coming across as mimicry, no matter how adroitly implemented. The Libertines, on the other hand, feel like the genuine article, offering a far more organic experience than the calculated facsimiles provided by the Strokes.
The resurrection of seventies-style garage rock occurred for a reason, and that reason clearly wasn't simply to make some quick cash off an ephemeral nostalgia fad. The Strokes, while not purely exploiting the craze, nevertheless failed to capture the full feeling of this genre of music; I'm not attributing this failing, as so many do, to the band's status as a cadre of young, wealthy and well-educated men, but rather to how transparently the group clutches to their influences, lending the music a detached feel that lacks the emotion and conviction of a group that's not afraid to be themselves.
The Libertines, on the other hand, truly produce guitar rock that feels authentic, never sounding like an homage to past idols or a child engaging in frivolous role-playing or pretending. The Libertines embody the only valid reason for resurrecting the previously alluded to seventies-rock-movement, namely to produce more excellent material in a style that truly suits the band.
Up The Bracket is garage rock of the highest order, a strong accolade in and of itself, but better still is the fact that the Libertines consistently branch off into other sonic areas. As stated before the band isn't afraid to operate outside the confines of retro guitar rock, resulting in a more varied and rewarding product.
While not quite Lennon/McCartney (or even Linnell/Flansburgh, though that's likely an assertion that could get me lynched), Doherty and Barat are highly skilled songwriters, though the story of the former is one of disappointment and frustration. While he's certainly exhibited signs of greatness they've been interrupted by prolonged incarcerations and a pilgrimage to try out virtually every single rehab clinic in the entire world.
The Libertines rock hard but are never afraid to insert the occasional catchy pop hook into the mix, a musical philosophy that stands the group in good stead. From the infectious rocker Vertigo (not to be confused with U2's hit single) to the primal, menacing Horrorshow (seemingly not an A Clockwork Orange reference) to the clever merger of hard rock and a poppy refrain in Boys In The Band to the adrenaline rush of the title track, the band have produced a highly consistent set of stellar rock tunes, assimilating influences from sources far more varied than the narrow list of garage-rock bands that have held sway over the creative development of most of the Libertines' far more limited brethren.
The Libertines' search for inspiration is never confined to a single genre, and the bands' willingness to accept influence from disparate sources has enabled them to become a far more versatile, multifaceted musical entity. While the Libertines are admittedly often in the thrall of past guitar rock heroes it doesn't prevent them from drawing on less obvious sources like the Clash and even the Beatles, thus differentiating themselves from many of their less adventurous peers.
Up The Bracket is simply a terrific debut that instantly elevates the Libertines to a position at the apex of the retro garage rock movement. The album offers a plethora of vocal melodies, manic yet precise instrumentation, a heaviness that never comes at the expense of tunefulness and a directness that never leaves the album primitive or predictable.
While the volatility of Doherty prevented the band from ever reaching their full potential, even on their debut the Libertines have crafted an immensely enjoyable set, a highly auspicious start that was sadly never matched by a comparably impressive end. Nevertheless the band has left their audience with some highly compelling material, largely compensating for the unfortunate brevity of their existence.
At this point comparisons with the Strokes are absurd; if the Libertines had ever truly been a part of the retro garage rock movement then those days have long since past, with the erstwhile seventies-guitar-rock-tribute-band replaced by a far more well-rounded and distinctive rock ensemble.
The Libertines' eponymous sophomore effort was recorded at a tumultuous stage in the band's existence, as thanks to Doherty's notorious excesses the group was perched on the brink of oblivion, an inevitable fate they subsequently, irrevocably succumbed to. Nevertheless the album never betrays signs of this impending catastrophe, much as Abbey Road emerged unscathed from its tense sessions despite the frayed relationships that coincided with its recording.
On the contrary, the Libertines sound as self-assured and confident as ever, Doherty's breakdown notwithstanding. The band have a commanding presence throughout the album, with skilful delivery and tight performances that invest tremendous power and immediacy into each note played and word spoken.
Whereas much of the variety of Up The Bracket was compartmentalized, with certain subgenres confined to only a single song, the band's self-titled outing is something akin to a melting pot, with most styles represented, at least subtly, on each track.
After eschewing some of their punkish and more abrasive tendencies, the Libertines, much as the Clash did early in their career, abandoned their early sound and opted to pursue a more classic-rock oriented direction. The Libertines prove that they have a complete mastery over the genre, and the gifts that they demonstrated on their debut have been successfully imported into their new style, with none of the band's ability or charm lost in this translation.
The band has retained many of their early influences, but this never comes at the expense of their own identity. By blending their early and late styles they manage to create a more nuanced, idiosyncratic sound that would have been lost had they simply made the leap to classic rock without first developing a unique persona for themselves. Doherty, Barat and company have fashioned a compelling style by incorporating the best aspects from their all too brief history, resulting in a rich and rewarding brand of classic rock that, while retaining a somewhat retro character, is developed into something that could only be achieved in the modern era.
Highlights include The Man Who Would Be King, a terrific pop rocker that transparently owes much to Smiths-era Morrissey without ever degenerating into parody or plagiarism. Can't Stand Me Now is a stellar track with great poppy vocal melodies and a hard rocking edge, while Last Post On The Bugle is a terrific moody rocker with a superb riff.
This only accounts for some of the early highlights on the CD, but the album manages to sustain this level of quality for its entire duration, leaving a final product that's impressive from its great opener to the hidden track that marks its end.
The Libertines' second CD is simply a terrific rock album, a profoundly enjoyable experience showcasing the songwriting brilliance of its two creative leaders. The band's debut was at the zenith of the retro rock fad, forming a foundation for the group to build something new upon, thus enabling them to create a final product that they could never have produced even a mere two years before. Given their considerable growth in such a short time period there's no telling what heights the band could have reached; sadly the album is the Libertines' swansong, bringing an end to a brief but by no means unremarkable existence.