The first British band to rival the garage rock revival sparked by the Strokes and White Stripes in the U.S., the Hives in Sweden, and the Datsuns in, er, New Zealand, the Libertines burst onto the scene with Up the Bracket, a debut album so confident and consistent that the easiest way to describe it is 2002's answer to Is This It? That's not just because singer/guitarist Pete Doherty's slurred, husky vocals sound like Julian Casablancas' with the added bonus of a fetching Cockney accent (or that both groups share the same tousled, denim-clad fashion sense); virtually every song on Up the Bracket is chock-full of the same kind of bouncy, aggressive guitars, expressive, economic drums, and irresistible hooks that made the Strokes' debut almost too catchy for the band's credibility. However, the resemblance is probably due more to the constant trading of musical ideas between the States and the U.K. than to bandwagon-jumping -- the Strokes' sound owes as much to Brit-pop sensations like Supergrass (which had the Libertines as its opening band on its 2002 U.K. tour) and Elastica as it does to American influences like the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. Likewise, the Libertines play fast and loose with four decades' worth of British rock history, mixing bits and bobs of British Invasion, mod, punk, and Brit-pop with the sound of their contemporaries.
On paper it sounds horribly calculated, but (also like the Strokes' debut) in practice it's at once fresh and familiar. Mick Jones' warm, not-too-rough and not-too-polished production both emphasizes the pedigree of their sound and the originality of it: On songs like "Vertigo," "Death on the Stairs," and the excellent "Boys in the Band," the guitars switch between Merseybeat chime and a garage-y churn as the vocals range from punk snarls to pristine British Invasion harmonies. Capable of bittersweet beauty on the folky, Beatlesque "Radio America" and pure attitude on "Horrorshow," the Libertines really shine when they mix the two approaches and let their ambitions lead the way. "Did you see the stylish kids in the riot?" begins "Time for Heroes," an oddly poetic mix of love and war that recalls the band's spiritual and sonic forefathers the Clash; "The Good Old Days" blends jazzy verses, martial choruses, and lyrics like "It's not about tenements and needles and all the evils in their eyes and the backs of their minds." On songs like these, "Tell the King," and "Up the Bracket," the group not only outdoes most of its peers but begins to reach the greatness of the Kinks, the Jam, and all the rest of the groups whose brilliant melodic abilities and satirical looks at British society paved the way for them. Though the album is a bit short at 36 minutes, that's long enough to make it a brilliant debut; the worst you can say about its weakest tracks is that they're really solid and catchy. Punk poets, lagered-up lads, London hipsters -- the Libertines play many different roles on Up the Bracket, all of which suit them to a T. At this point in their career they're not as overhyped as many of their contemporaries, so enjoy them while they're still fresh. [The U.S. version also includes the band's debut single, "What a Waster," as a bonus track, which makes it worthwhile for completists who bought the U.K. edition as well as those who waited for a domestic release.]