The Long And Winding Road

'On the verge' band finally arrives.

The Charlatans UK have always been one of those bands "on the verge."

They've hung in there through UK music trends ranging from shoegazing and

neo-psychedelia to Brit-pop, trip-hop and jungle; they've weathered all

manner of problems, from crime to nervous collapse to death (keyboardist

Rob Collins).

That alone makes the Charlatans great press, but the more urgent problem

has been the band's inability to make music as consistently interesting

as is their bio. With the release of Us and Us Only, however, the

latter difficulty looks to have been rectified.

At long last, pouty Jagger-meister vocalist Tim Burgess and company have

fashioned a record that finds them emulating, as opposed to imitating,

their major influences: the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, as well as

Charlatans contemporaries the Stone Roses. As a matter of fact, Us and

Us Only is what the Roses' Second Coming (1995) would have

sounded like if guitarist John Squire had decided to lean on classic

Stones, Dylan and Pink Floyd, rather than the more excessive moments of

Led Zeppelin.

Thus we have the album's opener, "Forever" (RealAudio

excerpt), which melds a nifty bit of Dylan-esque sentiment (Burgess,

evoking Bob's "Tangled Up in Blue," muses, " I wonder what you people do

with your lives" — lyrical cops from the Stones' "Coming Down Again"

and "Sweet Black Angel" also pop up) with music that morphs from

Meddle-era (1971) Pink Floyd and the Charlatans' touchstone, the

Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. (1972).

Burgess has always been both the Charlatans' biggest asset, with his

"Younger Mick" looks and leonine stage moves — and its biggest

liability, with a voice that, like Ian Brown's, has expressive limitations.

While he certainly doesn't possess Jagger's ability to plain raunch

out, Burgess seems determined to stretch, and the effort pays off

here, as on the Dylan-esque ballad "The Blonde Waltz" (RealAudio

excerpt), the tale of a loser trying to justify his failure in

life to his son.

While he previously sounded, at times, unsure of himself, the singer now

exudes confidence — and he challenges the band to match his intensity,

which it does with consummate ease. Listening to Burgess' stinging blues

harp and new keyboardist Tony Rogers' wheezing organ and Nicky

Hopkins–styled piano licks on "Impossible," the listener can imagine

he or she is eavesdropping on some long-lost basement-tape jams between

Dylan and the Stones.

The album's most sublime moment, however, is "My Beautiful Friend" (RealAudio

excerpt), a winding slice of timeless, transporting, syncopated

psychedelic pop that recalls such previous Charlatans high-water marks

as "Weirdo" and "Sproston Green." Such moments in the past always hinted

at a greatness lurking within this band that has just as often seemed an

empty promise. On Us and Us Only, however, the Charlatans finally

make good on that 10-plus-year tease: At long last, and after much travail,

they've finally reached the top of the rock mountain. Who'da thunk it?