Damon Gough (a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy) sings with a forthrightness that most indie singer/songwriters can't be bothered to match. At times, Gough's voice has a clarity that's startling, as in "The Shining," when a swelling orchestrated intro cuts away suddenly, leaving him delicate and unprotected, like Elliott Smith at his simplest. On its smooth, sentimental surface, The Hour of Bewilderbeast may appear similar to Smith's work. Plunge deeper, though, and this debut album -- which won the 2000 Mercury Music Prize, basically a British pop-music Pulitzer -- has a more daring vibe. Gough's backing musicians are generally sparser, yet know the value of a rhythm. BDB's songs, mostly demoed on a Walkman while Gough worked a blue-collar job, defy most stereotypes of the burgeoning DIY bedroom auteur, too. Moments of throbbing sentiment do show up on Bewilderbeast, but usually these songs are lighter and better stylized and Gough has a better sense of when to lay off the pathos. At other times, the record recalls the Beta Band or Mutations-era Beck, because Bewilderbeast has the best aspect of a pastiche: the element of surprise. He dabbles in backwoods Americana and slick, groovy disco-rock with authenticism and a welcome lack of irony. He busts up strings of songs with brief, odd interludes, including some playful DIY hip-hopping on "Body Rap." There are even a handful of perfect hummable songs that he plays with, either by ending them with a discordant lo-fi coda or just discarding them midsong, as he does by sharply snipping "Fall in a River" with a splash sound. On one level, these are just cheeky anti-single gestures, an indie hero giving the raspberry to approaching success again. For Gough, it's also boldness, a statement that he's got so many perfect tunes in his head that he can afford to waste a few.
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