It’s hard not to revisit their career when hearing a new Charlatans record for the first time. Having been trademarked in the mid ‘90s as the perennial indie survivors, The Charlatans have defined their ‘00s output with able but lacklustre releases. While never reaching the heights of Telling Stories or their self titled release The Charlatans have still produced enough recently to keep fans interested. And interested could not be more apt, with every new album it seems like The Charlatans take it upon themselves to reinvent their sound. Whether that be Tim Burgess’s falsetto vocals, a brief flirtation with dub, Dylan folk, or an attempt even to out Stones Primal Scream; it’s never been a boring ride. Where Who We Touch differs is that they have attempted to solidify their late period sound rather than recording whatever is floating their boat at the time, recording a mixed bag of the best and worst sounds from their last decade.
Opening with a wall of feedback before dipping their heads and driving into full on punk inflected power pop with “Love is Ending”, there is an immediate urgency to The Charlatans that hasn’t been apparent for almost a decade. Possibly resulting from their re-invigoration since their recent 20th anniversary Some Friendly shows, it seems from the oft that The Charlatans are trying to define who they are now rather than the band they were. “My Foolish Pride” is complete Motown pop and conjures images of a band in monochrome, fronted by Sam and Dave. “Your Pure soul” is filled with acoustic guitar and Hammond organ and, dare I say it, it’s probably is what Embrace wish they sounded like.
“Smash the System” meanwhile treads a fine line between dodgy call and response cheese and pure pop chorus. It’s tantalisingly close to being vintage Charlatans but then just falls back again at the last moment. There’s a great song in there fighting to get out if only they would give in to it. Maybe they heard this cry as the Hammond returns to full force on “Intimacy” and “Sincerity”, driven by Jon Brookes’ pulsating drums and Martin Blunt’s bass it’s hard not to look back and wonder where this Charlatans has been in amongst the chaff of the last decade. The swagger on “Sincerity” shows the arrogance that we once found captivating but now seems like the redemption of a band uniting their output and the multi-facets of their chameleon output.
“Oh” could be the polarising track on the album. Robert Wyatt-esque in its English folk sound, and could only have been produced by a band comfortable with recording what they want. It’s fairground keyboard and finger picked guitar is daring and a step removed from any sound The Charlatans fans have come to expect from the band. When it segues into the ambient closer “You Can Swim” it’s a couplet of songs that could only have been recorded by a British band brought up on a tradition of music hall, psychedelia and The Kinks. It’s one last sideways glance from the band as they invite us in early before blindsiding us with their furthest departure yet. For once though it doesn’t seem forced, this time it seems justified. Maybe it’s a band giving us a little of what we’ve loved, and some may be rediscovering, along with their own eclecticism. Or maybe this is just simply The Charlatans in 2010.