Cool Britannia

Featuring a very strange rendition of "Seasons In The Sun."

Though they devote equal time to criticizing and praising their country, the

English are obsessed with their nationality. Black Box Recorder adhere to

this tradition on their remarkable debut album England Made Me, which

rails at the mundanities and hidden horrors of everyday British suburban

life in such a refined and respectful manner one suspects that the group

rather adores the mess they see around them.

While the name Black Box Recorder is new to the scene, its songwriters

are not. Luke Haines fronted the Auteurs and Baader Meinhoff, and John Moore

drummed with the Jesus and Mary Chain before a brief solo career in the

early '90s.

But it is newcomer Sarah Hixey who steals the show. Lyrics that could have

sounded bitter or self-pitying come across as wry, analytic and even poetic

under her deadpan delivery. On "Ideal Home" she details the

pettiness of middle class suburban values in a way American kids will easily

relate to, just as they will relate to "Child Psychology," on which she

recalls a youth of self-imposed silence and school expulsions against which

psychiatrists were rendered helpless. (The lyrics are written from a

fictional character's point of view.)

Musically, England Made Me is restrained almost to the point of

withdrawal. Guitars and keyboards pluck out gentle arpeggiated melodies,

drums are often brushed or performed on old-fashioned beatboxes and

harmonies are hushed. The effect is as stunning as it is haunting, and never

more so than on a cover of the 20-year-old reggae song "Uptown Top Ranking,"

on which Nixey, speaking over a drum machine and violins, turns a boastful

feminine going-out anthem into a morning-after lament.

Four bonus cuts from earlier singles include an equally disconcerting cover

of "Seasons in the Sun" (written by Jacques Brel but made famous

in 1974 by Terry Jacks) and the sarcastically titled "Wonderful Life." The

only upbeat number out of 15 songs is the closing "Lord Lucan Is

Missing," and that's probably because the central character (a British

nobleman who disappeared after a crime spree) is someone other than the

singer.

Like the best ballads of the Smiths, England Made Me renders

small-town misery delightfully epic. And with its haunting emotion, the

album is a perfect reminder that the power of a song is not dictated by its

volume.