Interesting, small records from bummed-out English guys with guitars are popping up like dandelions again -- we might be coming up on exciting times. Back in the mid-'80s you couldn't walk past a high school without seeing at least one guy in a Smiths T-shirt, sitting by himself underneath a tree reading Oscar Wilde. With a little luck, cardigans could replace tongue piercings as the obligatory accouterments of pouting postadolescents across the country. One unprepossessing glimmer of hope is Arco's Coming to Terms, which recently received its U.S. release.
A textbook example of what's good about the encouraging resurgence of English rock, Coming to Terms features muted electric guitars closer in feeling to the stateliness of Joni Mitchell's Hejira than to the distortion-heavy chugga-chugga that presently clogs the nation's airwaves. Unlike this week's English-rock poster boys of Coldplay, though, Arco has no pretension of "importance." Vocalist Chris Healey seldom raises his voice above conversational level; most of the time, he's singing in an exaggerated whisper and dwelling in a halting, almost hesitant manner on themes of loneliness and isolation.
"Tried so hard to find a voice inside me," he sings in "Accident," the album's shimmering highlight, "But nothing like the ones I've heard inspires me/And all the words I thought I'd find I haven't/ I'm waiting for an accident to happen." Behind the twinkling guitar, a faint trumpet sounds lonesome, high whole notes, bringing to mind Factory Records' greatly missed (if hopelessly obscure) Stockholm Monsters. A lost moment in time, "Accident" conjures early-adult angst without getting all whiny about it. It's a stunner. Later, on the album-closing "Lullaby," a piano that sounds as if it were last touched during World War I picks out lilting, dreamlike phrases while Healey sings, almost as though to himself: "Cast away your darkest fears, be released now/Still the pounding in your heart, be at peace now." It's delicate, wonderful, and quietly moving.
Nobody will be charging Arco with being too original anytime soon: The band often sounds a lot like Radiohead. But is this such a bad thing? Radiohead is, after all, probably the best big-ticket rock band in the world right now, and more bands that sound like them might mean fewer that sound like Stone Temple Pilots. Lacking the bubbling-lava rage that informs Radiohead in its most powerful moments, Arco opts for static, sad resignation. The album has its clunky moments -- the mournful "Grey" would have been best left in the high-school English notebook from which it sprang -- but on the whole, Coming to Terms is a surprisingly intelligent record and worth the 33 minutes it takes to cast a gorgeous pallor over one's day.