Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Libertines guitarist comes back with hooks and noise but can'tescape the shadow of Pete Doherty

***1/2

DIRTY PRETTY THINGS
Waterloo to Anywhere
Interscope

Almost anyone playing the Dirty Pretty Things's Waterloo to Anywhere back-to-back with Babyshambles's Down in Albion--and why not, since each debut album claims the legacy of the Libertines, the finest punk band of the new millennium--will have the same initial response: Maybe Pete Doherty gets more credit than he deserves. Doherty's Down in Albion is a woozy, windy, unformed thing, ideal for fans of aural impressionism and aesthetically certified drug abuse. Waterloo to Anywhere, which introduces the band formed by Doherty's senior partner Carl Barak, is an exceptionally well-crafted punk record: catchy, noisy, beat-y, quick. Yet compared to the Strokes, Hives or the grown-up Green Day, it certainly isn't neat. It walks an edge, and that's exciting.

The songs are pretty strong, too. Intro riffs quickly become nodding acquaintances, though they fall back in the middle, and there are plenty of bracing breaks and engaging counterfigures. The lyrical catchphrases are solid and felt: "Bang, bang, you're dead"; "Give me something to die for"; "If you love a woman you mustn't beat her"; "What will you do when they forget your name?/Well, you'll up and get another one." Barat's conversational, Bowie-school baritone conveys the right states of mind: disillusion, anger, contempt, dismay. In short, a dandy little piece of rock & roll anarchy. Sounds a lot like the Libertines.

Until you back-to-back it again--not with the Libertines' 2002 debut, Up the Bracket, an acknowledged classic that would be hard to beat, but with 2004's follow-up, The Libertines, which has a dodgier rep. Undertaken after Doherty's flings with crack and heroin had turned into a full-time romantic obsession involving his secondary obsession with girlfriend Kate Moss, a break-in at Barak's apartment and prison time for burglary, the second album's recording sessions featured bodyguards to keep Barak and Doherty from injuring each other. So it was hard to tell whether the perceived letdown reflected Doherty's breakdown or the Brit press's famous build-'em-up-to-tear-'em-down syndrome. But no more. Imperfect The Libertines may be. But up against Waterloo to Anywhere, its teetering lyricism is precious and vivid. Vocally, Barak is far more authoritative righting Doherty's high, mad quaver than stating his complaints, and he lacks his mate's gift for the compelling chorus. Not a single song on Waterloo to Anywhere is as indelibly individual as, to name just three, "Can't Stand Me Now," "Don't Be Shy" or "Music When the Lights Go Out."

It's less what Doherty has to say than how much he hopes to achieve by saying it--ecstasy, liberation, the magic kingdom he calls Albion. By comparison, Barak is just another wasted rock & roller--no junkie, but no teetotaler either. And he can't forget the genius he left behind. Barak insists that not all the breakup songs are about Doherty, and I don't doubt him. The sarcasm in "The Gentry Cove" about the U.K. working class's Iraq options is welcome. Nevertheless, three focus tracks--"Deadwood," "Bang Bang You're Dead," "The Enemy"--sure read like Pete songs. Just as bad, many others read like no-more-Pete songs.

Before we disrespect Barak, though, we should wonder whether we're much better. Is there something voyeuristic, codependent or enabling about the pleasure non-druggies take in the band Pete Doherty made go? The myth that heroin is good for the creative juices can be referred back to the beboppers. Charlie Parker's and Billie Holiday's music survived junk rather than benefited from it, while Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins took quantum leaps after they kicked--which hasn't stopped way too many rock & rollers from mounting the same horse. Their reasons vary, but Doherty seems a classic case. Dope is another means to the Albion he hopes to reach via music, and our normal lives are enriched and lightened by his uncommon needs. Barak climaxes the cynical "Gin and Milk" by demanding, "Give me something to try for/Give me something to try for." Probably what he should try for is Albion. Whether he can get there remains to be heard.

Rolling Stone, Aug. 10, 2006