Album review: Codeine Velvet Club


THERE comes a time in a young man's life when scuzzy rock'n'roll, crazy festival crowds and the stale scent of beer (and other less fragrant smells) on the tour bus just isn't enough any more, and it is time to smarten up, book a string section and allow girls into the club.

Jon Lawler, known in a previous life as Jon Fratelli, frontman of the knees-up Glasgow indie rock trio The Fratellis, reached that point just over a year ago, as his group were winding up a world tour in support of their second album Here We Stand.

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Lawler needed a break – but not, as he soon discovered, the kind of break where you lounge in your beach house reading a pile of books. He needed the kind of break where you don't tour or record with a rock'n'roll band, but you do have somewhere artistic to route all that nervous energy.

Lawler found that outlet when his wife introduced him to Lou Hickey, a local singer/songwriter who regularly sang at renowned burlesque night Club Noir. Hickey was putting together her debut solo album and invited him to contribute a song. Lawler wrote a suitably glamorous track called Vanity Kills – but quickly realised that he didn't want to relinquish custody.

The solution was to share the parenting with Hickey and start their own group – one which evoked old-school glamour and romance and required its members to scrub up stylishly.

Arctic Monkey Alex Turner had recently pulled off a similar transformation in The Last Shadow Puppets, citing Scott Walker as his musical model. With Hickey as co-vocalist, Lawler could explore 1960s girl group territory, bone up on the duets of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra – a pairing he had never heard until Codeine Velvet Club was open for business – and enter the world of bespoke tailoring.

As Lawler says, you can't play this kind of music wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Hickey is a vision in vintage dresses, while Lawler is now on familiar terms with his tailor. Although their debut album is not out until the end of the month, Codeine Velvet Club have already bagged a Scottish Style Award as most stylish band. So, they have the look. But do they have the sound?

The swagger of Vanity Kills would suggest so. With its backdrop of swooping strings and cheeky brass and Hickey's coquettish, full-bodied vocals, one can appreciate how it opened new avenues for Lawler. Until this point, he had been known for writing lairy indie rock shoutalongs. With one stroke, he demonstrated a facility for classy pop.

He subsequently spent time holed up in the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel on LA's Sunset Strip channelling the faded glamour and seedy underbelly of old Hollywood, which he addresses explicitly on current single and album opener Hollywood.

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The song begins with an orchestral flourish reminiscent of Bond theme You Only Live Twice before careering straight into a glam gallop, and then lifting off on the soaring, string-soaked chorus.

Despite its urgent pace, Lawler is not falling over himself to deliver garbled, jabbering Fratellis-style lyrics. Instead, he allows himself the space to pen his perverse love letter. "This city is a monument to bad taste," Lawler proclaims with relish, "sinking in a tidal wave of alcohol", while Hickey chimes in her response with Ronettes/Shangri Las-style backing vocals.

The rest of the album follows suit with sweeping string arrangements, bold bursts of mariachi or jazz trumpeting and the alluring dynamic of boy/girl vocals. Time piles all these elements onto a roaring 1960s psych rocker, and it's not the only time Lawler lets his rock roots shine through.

Little Sister is straight-up garage rock'n'roll, albeit embellished with some super-sassy brass, Begging Bowl Blues is the kind of thing Oasis would write when they were feeling adventurous, while I Would Send You Roses sounds like a Fratellis song gatecrashing the sophisticated party.

This primitive pub rocker was originally written for Roger Daltrey to sing, but, again, Lawler wouldn't put it up for adoption.

Back in more elegant mode, Reste Avec Moi adopts a broodier, lovesick tone, with Hickey sighing that "nights like these come and go so endlessly", while album centrepiece Nevada shimmers and beguiles with an accomplished orchestral arrangement by Mick Cooke of Belle & Sebastian, providing the sweetest ache on an album which is impressively cohesive in its desire to sound like "John Barry playing with a rock'n'roll band". Lawler now has a foot in two camps, but it seems that, for the moment, the indie rocker prefers the cut of his new clothes. His tailor better be prepared for more business.


The Mars Volta

HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, 9 December

IF LED Zeppelin formed today, they might sound something like LA's mighty Mars Volta, a genuinely progressive rock band, helmed by Hispanic guitar hero Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and gymnastic frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, whose three-hour freakout rock'n'roll assaults leave you wanting more.

• Tel: 0131-221 2280

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