Auteurs Lost in Translation

Michael Snyder
San Francisco Chronicle

In Great Britain, the praise keeps coming for singer-songwriter- guitarist Luke Haines and his band the Auteurs.

The notoriously fickle English rock weeklies have anointed Haines as the poet laureate of the moment. "New Wave" -- the Auteurs' first album -- topped the best-of-'93 list in the glossy, trend- sniffing magazine The Face.

If you were at Slim's on Friday, where the band played to half a house, you might have wondered what the fuss was about. The Auteurs' show was sometimes intriguing, often so-so. Melodies weren't particularly memorable. Maybe the show points up the disparity between the conjuring tricks of the British music press and the realities of a stateside audience, but Friday's show didn't feel like an Event with a capital "E."

There's no doubt that Haines -- pale and wan with a blond mod 'do -- has a fierce intellect. In his lyrics to songs such as "The Upper Classes," "Brainchild" and "New French Girlfriend," he's the cynical mirror of a once-proud country crippled by unemployment, still clinging to an outmoded caste system and wary of joining a newly united Europe. Other songs (i.e., "Lenny Valentino," "Show Girl" and "Chinese Bakery") are brittle hymns to our satellite-linked culture.

Think of Haines the lyricist as a contemptuous cross between the bittersweet social realism of the Kinks' Ray Davies and the dissipated urban grit of Lou Reed. His voice echoes the Dylan-derived talk-singing of Reed, Robyn Hitchcock and Lloyd Cole. He is still a little callow by comparison to these others, and he is not yet the most gifted tunesmith.

The band -- a five-piece unit in concert with the addition of a second guitarist -- is solid. In fact, the presence of cellist-keyboardist James Banbury gives it a unique sound. The most compelling moments at Slim's were stimulated by Banbury's cello, which sweetened the mix or added a brooding tone. But much of the rest sounds a bit too familiar.

When the guitars get revved up, there is an unmistakable resemblance to the terse glam-rock of David Bowie's Spiders From Mars and the Bowie-produced efforts by Mott the Hoople. This is something that the Auteurs' music shares with the sound of Suede -- another young glam-influenced band that is a darling of the U.K. rock scene and, thus far, has shown a better knack for hit-making pop hooks.

It's instructive to note that flavor-of-the-month successes in England don't necessarily translate to the American market. Suede is not yet a Top 10 phenomenon in the U.S. The Farm has failed to duplicate its series of No. 1 British singles on this side of the Atlantic.

A promise of greater things is implicit in Haines' continental rock lament "New French Girlfriend," his venomous swipes at show-biz hero worship and the band's ability to handle chamber- folk, post-modern doo-wop and post-punk hard rock. Judgment has to be reserved on the Auteurs until further evidence is in.