After nearly 40 years of exporting wave after wave of U.K. pop music, you'd think record companies would be a bit more savvy about how they approach us Yanks. All the hoo-ha about awards and accolades overseas is enough to make your head spin. Does it really matter that Coldplay was named "Band of the Year 2000" by the British press or that its debut, Parachutes, went to No. 1 on the British charts?
If the current U.S. market weren't so glutted with the tombstone rubble of the Grunge Age, teen bubblegum and white-boy hybrid-rap, it might not matter that Coldplay hails from Britain. But given the desolate American musical landscape (at least as far as charts are concerned), spare songs that incorporate piano, strings and trained vocals in a non-bombastic manner beg the question: Who are the record-buying public of England? And why do they have such good taste, comparatively speaking?
Coldplay drummer Wil Champion reckons that, as much as the kids in England revere American music (hence the recent success of U.K. chartmates Eminem and Faith Hill), those same kids pride themselves on being independent and in touch with their emotions. "They really want to connect with the music," Champion says. Despite popular belief that Brits are quiet and reserved, they're big saps. Maybe that's why Coldplay's ballads soar on "Top of the Pops" but have only begun to make tiny ripples in Billboard's domain.
Getting to the top of the charts in England isn't that difficult -- there are only 50 million people in the whole country. Champion admits his band's current tour and American media push are a bit premeditated, but insists the U.S. needs bands who offer something more than Britney Spears. Solid melodies and sweeping arrangements aren't necessarily what us beer-guzzling, gun-toting heartlanders are looking for in a new rock band. We want tits and ass -- or at the very least, a music video with lots of exposed midriffs.
Coldplay doesn't show much skin in the video for their sleeper hit, "Yellow," but the four-and-a-half-minute single-shot clip of leader Chris Martin sauntering into the sunrise must have struck a chord with someone in this country, because for a while, it was popping up on MTV almost as often as one of Destiny's Child's navelfests. The band's well-intentioned yet ultimately misguided press release describes the song as "steeped in an unusual and sincere optimism rarely found in English bands," which just isn't true. England deserves better, and so does Coldplay.
Can't "Yellow" be both inherently British and optimistic? It's one of those singles that, if they still made 45s, would sit endlessly on the record player while the needle plopped down on the first note, traveled through its vinyl grooves and returned for another spin -- and another and another. Beyond Martin's subtle refrain and breathless backing vocals, the song's got one of those infectious, nondescript droning guitars that acts more like percussion than a real riff. On the whole, it's not completely original, but it's refreshingly honest.
"We tried to make sure that it was uplifting," Champion says. "And we always try and be realistic."
Realism is a relative term, but considering members of Coldplay met at college in 1996, the band's reasonably sensible lyrics ("We live in a beautiful world/yeah we do") are obvious products of their collective boarding-school educations and musical influences (for Champion, Badly Drawn Boy; for Martin, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits). "We're definitely serious about the music," Champion says. "But not too serious. We enjoy ourselves."
That Coldplay enjoy their songs is evident in the rush and abandon of "Spies," recorded live in the studio. Champion's syncopated beats chug along to the guitarist's speed-ripping bridge, and Martin launches into a brief but glorious falsetto rant.
There's no question Martin's voice is the centerpiece of Coldplay's music. Like Thom Yorke of Radiohead's operatic wail, Martin's tenor is nimble and acrobatic -- perfect for assimilating the tonal color of piano, bass and drums. While Yorke's high notes can come off rehearsed, Martin's have a nervous vulnerability and insecurity buried deep within. Think Chris Martin and think of a less-troubled Jeff Buckley. Martin's vocals make the chorus to "Trouble" as naggingly mind-gnawing as any melody since Travis' "Driftwood."
When it comes down to it, Coldplay probably won't be the next big thing. But while they're riding their wave of admiration from Americans, the least we can do is give props to their beautiful, understated Parachutes and heed drummer Wil Champion's advice for following our guts and our hearts when buying music. "After all," he says. "It is possible to make music that provides emotion without shouting."
Coldplay plays the Tabernacle on Wed., May 30. Grandaddy opens. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $21. Call 404-249-6400.
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