(08-22-2002) Coldplay: Possibly The Next U2? - The Boston Phoenix - U2 Feedback

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Old 08-22-2002, 11:29 AM   #1
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(08-22-2002) Coldplay: Possibly The Next U2? - The Boston Phoenix

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Career boys?
With A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay come of age
BY MATT ASHARE
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SINGULAR: anyone digging for influences on A Rush of Blood to the Head is going to uncover a decade and a half's worth of Britpop conceits absorbed into a sound that belongs to Coldplay alone.

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There’s no science when it comes to predicting which new artists or bands are destined for success and which ones aren’t. If there were, then major labels wouldn’t invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in dozens of albums that go nowhere, and they wouldn’t bother signing even a tenth of the artists and bands whom they make deals with year after year. All you can do is to try to explain, after the fact, why this album or song or artist connected with a mainstream audience and that one didn’t — and often even that’s too much to ask. It’s no trick to predict that the next Bruce Springsteen or U2 album will shoot to the top of the charts. But in the fickle world of pop music, even career artists like Oasis can find themselves struggling to stay afloat. None of which is news to anyone who pays the slightest attention to the Billboard charts.

Two years ago, Coldplay, a quiet little London-based band of college kids who’d come together from Scotland, North Wales, Devon, and Southampton, vaulted from working their way up through the ranks of Britpop hopefuls in modest rock venues to going up against perennial favorites like Primal Scream for the coveted Mercury Prize. And then, in the midst of a rap-metal-driven resurgence of angst-ridden hard rock in the US, they scored a major radio hit with the single "Yellow" from a debut, Parachutes, that came out on the Canadian-based label Nettwerk before Capitol stepped in.

Although nobody could have predicted it would be Coldplay and not, say, Travis who would follow in Radiohead’s footsteps as the next great British export to plant their flag on American soil, in retrospect the success of "Yellow" made sense. Gentle, moody, falsetto-favoring frontman Chris Martin brought to mind the very voice that was missing from Radiohead’s eagerly awaited Kid A (Capitol). And "Yellow" became the kind of Radiohead pop song that Radiohead had willfully refused to include on that abstract and electronically tweaked album (which debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart but didn’t stay there long). The millions of Radiohead fans who gobbled up Kid A in its first week or two were still hungry for another melancholy hit from Thom Yorke, and the blond-haired, blue-eyed Martin delivered it. Coldplay, whose debut had arrived in the US almost a year after its British release, would go on to win the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2002.

The problem was, the band weren’t ready to be thrust into such a large spotlight or onto such large stages. In fact, they seemed more than a little tentative on their first US tour. And by the end of that tour they seemed worn out by the attention, the enthusiasm, and, as is often the case when a band succeed on the strength of one single, the wry criticism. Former Creation label head Alan McGee, a pop god of sorts in England, dismissed Coldplay as "music for bedwetters." Nevertheless, Parachutes went on to sell five million copies worldwide, 1.3 million of those in the US.

Different artists have different ways of dealing with the pressures and the mixed messages that come with hitting the jackpot on your first album. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder seemed to feel intense discomfort with the role they were expected to play. Earlier this summer, Martin summed up that feeling in an interview he gave to England’s New Musical Express. "I just felt like such a fake," he recalled, referring to last year’s NME Awards. "Why? Because I was sat near Noel [Gallagher] and Bono and all them and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? . . . I’m not really that rock and roll.’ As I walked out of the building, I thought, ‘What a tosser, I’m just going to leave all this to Bono.’ "

Funny that Martin should focus on Bono, because Coldplay’s sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol; in stores this Tuesday), features the kind of reflective and emotionally loaded vocals that characterize subtler U2 anthems like "One." Which is not to suggest that the new album sounds like a cop of U2’s style and substance. There’s a lot more to A Rush of Blood to the Head than that, and anyone digging for influences is going to uncover a decade and a half’s worth of Britpop conceits absorbed into a sound that belongs to Coldplay alone.

But Martin himself has grown from a shy young lad into a commanding frontperson, as he demonstrated when the band showed up at the Paradise on August 6 as part of a pre-release promotional tour. If he seemed dwarfed by the massive expectations that had built up before Coldplay’s first American tour, on this go-round he seemed fully in command and even at ease with those same expectations, closing his eyes and picking out lush arpeggios on his guitar before moving over to a piano bench that could barely contain him as he pounded out the minor-key chords to the handful of new tunes he introduced.

The rest of the band — guitarist Jon Buckland, drummer Will Champion, and bassist Guy Berryman — seemed happy to let Martin fill the spotlight as they largely remained in shoegazer mode, laying down a rich-textured backdrop for their singer to fall back on when the rush of emotions threatened to overwhelm him. Even the tunes from Parachutes seemed revitalized by Martin’s command of his role as frontman and by the sharper dynamics and refined intensity from the band. The most cynical observer would have had to allow that "Yellow" was no fluke and that Coldplay are ready to step up to the next level and embrace — in their own way and on their own terms — the responsibilities and the expectations of pop stardom. I got the feeling that the next time Martin finds himself seated next to Bono and Noel, he isn’t going to feel like a fake.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about A Rush of Blood to the Head. Coldplay aren’t on a mission to discover some new-fangled prototype for pop music. Yet when you think back to how Radiohead and even U2 (with their Pop Mart fiasco) attempted to create new pop hybrids instead of just writing good songs, there’s something refreshing about Coldplay’s sticking to what they do best, even if that means the disc’s first single, "In My Place," sounds a bit like a rewrite of "Yellow." The two songs do have the same basic building blocks: a wounded vocal, simple yet universal lyrics like "I was lost" and "I was scared," an echoey guitar hook, a muscular drumbeat, and a flowing melody that builds up to several key emotional climaxes.

There are some variations on the Parachutes themes. Two tracks ("Politik" and "God Put a Smile upon Your Face") have a spiritual edge to them that reinforces the Bono comparisons. "Green Eyes" has an almost countryish, sing-along sensibility, and there’s an Eastern-tinged feel to the strings that embellish "Daylight." But for the most part, the method to Coldplay’s melancholy remains much the same: Martin sketches a verse or two by himself on guitar or piano before the rest of the band power up and kick the song into gear.

What’s changed are those intangibles that can make a good band great and a great band transcendent. Much of it has to do with the confidence reflected in Martin’s delivery. "I’m going to buy a gun and start a war/If you can tell me something worth fighting for," he emotes on the title track, and as with the way Bono does "It’s a beautiful day," it’s all in how the line is sung. The band have also internalized influences ranging back a decade or two in the realm of British pop, from the grandiose textures of Echo and the Bunnymen (whose singer, Ian McCulloch, is said to have befriended and encouraged Martin during the recording of the album) to the maudlin moods and chiming guitars of the Smiths, from the deep, driving bass lines of New Order to the circular psychedelic refrains of Spiritualized. In short, the outfit that two years ago could be referred to as Radiohead Jr. has expanded its palette and grown into a more self-assured and compelling band who no longer owe obvious debts to other bands or artists.

Most bands never bridge that gap. They may be lucky enough to score a hit or two, but they fade away before they have a chance to establish themselves as career artists. It’s still too early to tell how far Coldplay are capable of traveling. But they’re headed in the right direction. And when on "In My Place" Martin admits, "I was scared/I was scared/I was tired and unprepared," it’s clear that he’s referring to the guy who used to front Coldplay and not to the sure-footed frontman who captivated the crowd at the Paradise earlier this month.

Issue Date: August 22 - 29, 2002
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