Arctic Monkey Alex Turner Branches Out With Last Shadow Puppets, By John Norris

Album title, The Age of the Understatement, is a joke: It's 'big' and 'dramatic.'

When you are one of the biggest stars in British rock, you have the freedom to branch out. And, with all due respect to Thom Yorke and Chris Martin, these days the biggest star — at least within the U.K. — is Alex Turner. His Arctic Monkeys are England’s most lauded band of the past few years, owners of a ton of Brit, NME and Q awards, plus a prestigious Mercury Prize (voted for by British industry experts, journalists and artists in recognition of originality and creativity). And the Monkeys wouldn’t be the Monkeys without the wry and witty Turner and his rapid-fire singing and playing.

So it seems Alex felt emboldened to stretch out when he decided to work on a side project with his pal Miles Kane of Liverpool-area band the Rascals. Last week, the duo, calling themselves the Last Shadow Puppets (a name inspired by a friend’s skill with shadow puppetry on a blanket), released an album that sounds nothing like the indie rock for which they have become known.

“It’s not like we really planned it, it was: ‘Let’s just see what happens,’ ” Turner said when I sat down with the lads a few weeks back. “We had this idea, we wanted to do this big album, dramatic and stuff, and have, like, strings and brass. But at first we were like, ‘How are we gonna do that? Is that even possible?’ ”

Oh, it was possible all right, because the album is all of the above and more. Its title, The Age of the Understatement, is completely tongue-in-cheek, as it’s anything but understated or subtle. Sweeping and cinematic in the style of a ’60s spy flick, the album’s conceit is one that the guys agreed on going in, inspired in part by veteran singer/songwriter Scott Walker’s recordings of Jacques Brel songs (Walker and Brel were also cited by Zach Condon as major influences on last year’s Beirut album, The Flying Club Cup).

“Early Bowie was an influence as well,” Kane said. “Just big, dramatic songs. And we’d always imagined a young band doing that sort of music now — you know, big and epic and words and melodies flying everywhere. So we sat down and wrote some tunes in this vein, put ‘em together and said, ‘These are really cool.’ ”

They’re particularly cool when handled by a 22-piece orchestra, playing string arrangements by indie man-in-demand Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy. The ’60s sound is underscored by the black-and-white shot of a Twiggy-style model on the album cover, and the Cold War-era-evoking video for the title track, which features a chorus of Russian soldiers and the band atop a Soviet tank.

That’s a long way from the quirky tales of English youth the Arctic Monkeys made famous, and Alex says that surprising fans of his main band does have its appeal. “I suppose there is excitement about that, but it wasn’t built on that,” he said. “We just wanted to make a record that we were into.”

While he added that 2008 was always intended to be a “take it easy” year for the Monkeys (though reportedly they may have a single out before the end of the year), for Miles, it’s another story: The Rascals won’t even release their debut album until next month.

So — isn’t it a bit weird, releasing a side project before your main band’s album? “I don’t really think it is,” he replied, “because it’s not really about that. This is just about making music and the only reason it’s coming out before is that we recorded it last summer, and it turned out so good we didn’t want to just sit on it.”

Good thing they didn’t. They’re quite a pair, Turner and Kane — the sort of friends who finish each others’ sentences. Check out more of my interview with them at rhapsody.com.