Someone to Drive You Home, the long-awaited debut from Sheffield's the Long Blondes, is the best Britpop album in nearly a decade. This isn't exactly a shocking statement, considering that the scene's original leading lights have been broken up or treading water for a good while. The young doofuses that have attempted to pick up the torch since then (spanning the tiny gap between the Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys) have focused on a crude lad-mag sensibility that ignores the genre's true allure. None of those grubby chip-shop savants can match the brains, style, dark humor and undeniable glamour that saturate this record.
So far, every Blondes career move has been as carefully manicured as the members' vintage wardrobes. Early vinyl singles distributed on painfully hip U.K. labels cultivated a steady hype for nearly three years before the band finally accepted a spot on the roster of the legendary Rough Trade label. Now, ready for their close up, the members enlisted ex-Pulp man Steve Mackey to give everything a glossy sheen. Grumbling from DIY purists aside, early fans can't be too upset as long as singer Kate Jackson's scorned-femme persona remains intact. Her delivery, equal parts come on and put down, recalls the posh intimidation of Elastica's Justine Frischmann. The perfect enunciation in "Giddy Stratospheres" channels Siouxsie, but a surprising eruption of girl-group call-and-response keeps it from being too bleak. "Once and Never Again" masquerades as a snappy pop advice column before a pervy final line twist neatly undercuts the altruism. The lyrics always remain fiendishly catchy in spite of their unpredictable smarts.
Although none of the new material is even remotely bad, a handful of diverse tracks on the album's second half exceed the high standards set by the hand-picked singles. "You Could Have Both" sees Jackson pick up the morose monologue trick from Jarvis Cocker, detailing the ostracism that comes with being a young Scott Walker fan. "Madame Ray" (inspired by Man Ray's mistress) is the album's most up-tempo pogo starter, with percussive duties handed off between booming drum fills and cheerleader gang shouts. The most fully realized song is saved for the grand closer, "A Knife for the Girls." After a quick bar of waltz tempo sighing, a driving beat gives the slowly evolving angular riff and hovering background "oohs" some forward momentum. It's simultaneously wounded and tough in its half recounted details of a fateful backroom indiscretion. Unlike the graphic booze and birds preoccupations of the current Brit scene, it maintains a charming mystery.
Given the collective weight of all Someone to Drive You Home's relationships gone wrong, the early line "All I have here with me are the records and the books that I own" is revealed as seminal. The Long Blondes present song after sharply executed song lamenting the inevitable disappointment when art-fueled adolescent notions of romance give way to the harsh light of reality. I'm sure there are one or two folks out there who can relate.