Coming to Terms (Pehr)

Mar 28, 2001 at 4:00 am
Interesting small records from bummed-out English guys with guitars are popping up like dandelions again -- it's possible we're 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 de rigueur accoutrement of pouting postadolescents across the country. One unprepossessing glimmer of hope is Arco's Coming to Terms, which recently got 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 now clogs the nation's airwaves. But unlike this week's English-rock poster boys, Coldplay, Arco has no pretensions 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 there's a faint trumpet, sounding 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 was 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 is delicate and wonderful, quietly moving.

Nobody will be charging Arco with being too original anytime soon: They often sound 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 Radiohead might mean fewer that sound like the Stone Temple Pilots, if our luck holds out. Lacking the bubbling-lava rage that informs Radiohead in their 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, worth the 33 minutes it takes to cast a gorgeous pallor over one's day.