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January 25, 2005

Despite delusions of grandeur, Razorlight can rock

Johnny Borrell, frontman of the British band Razorlight, has a bit of a reputation for being an arrogant prat. He is, after all, the man who told the press that his debut album was better than Dylan's debut…before sitting down to write most of the songs in it, of course.

We could discuss the relative merits of Razorlight's Up All Night and Dylan's first record for a while, I suppose, but, having never seen Dylan perform live, I think that's where the comparisons will have to end. The fact remains that Razorlight is one of the myriad good, new bands to come out of England last year. Apparently not many Americans have heard of them, as the majority of people who braved the snow and cold last Thursday night to see them at the Double Door had foreign accents—or at the very least, an NME subscription and a healthy collection of Brit-pop CDs lining their shelves at home.

Even if their production is more careful and nuanced than that of many other bands, there is not a great difference between Razorlight's live sound and their studio sound. Technically, they sound OK live, even if Borrell does have the somewhat annoying tendency to not so much sing as…recite some of his lyrics. Someone should tell him he sounds much better when he's doing the former, or screaming himself hoarse on the chorus to "Vice" (definitely one of the highlights of their debut album, along with the phenomenal "Golden Touch").

Therefore, the whole point of seeing Razorlight perform in front of an audience—instead of sitting home and sparing yourself the $20—becomes that somewhat dodgy, unquantifiable elation that accompanies seeing live music. (In this particular case, I was also intrigued see what a self-proclaimed genius looked like—that ego must get heavy, sometimes). As far as that goes, Thursday evening's gig was quite good.

Tennessee-based opening act, the Features, was better than most opening bands I've seen, even if their frontman has not completely mastered the art of singing into a microphone. Instead, he sings near the microphone and his voice is lost under the sound of the overly loud, but excellent, guitars. The Features played a decent-length set and were kind, kind souls who milled about the Double Door afterwards, signing as many copies of their album as you wanted them to. I have to confess that in the lull between sets, I wondered if they were going to be polar opposites of the main act.

Contrary to what you'd expect, however, Borrell (and the rest of his band) proved to be quite affable—Borrell did sound genuinely pleased that all of us had trudged through the cold to see him perform. Prat or not, he proved once and for all to those not completely enamored with his record that he most certainly can write songs and perform them live. Those of us already sold on Up All Night were treated to a gig where the band didn't really care to follow along with the set list and where—in one memorable moment—Borrell tried to teach us how to play one of his songs (the easiest one, he told us, as apparently there's only one chord involved). He also made off-handed comments about the meaning of this or that song, and would sometimes perform random snippets and covers, cutting them off midway through before returning to his original material.

From the opener, "Dalston" (supposedly a plea to crack-addled Peter Doherty to clean up his act), to the closer "To the Sea," Razorlight tore through practically their whole album. They also unveiled a couple of new songs. "Profile" stands out most vividly, suggesting that they may be more than just another one of those one-hit-wonders the pop genre produces by the dozen every year. They play pop—yes, much like everyone else seems to these days—but they do it with such rawness and honesty that you can't help but buy into their performance. "Rip it Up," performed near the end of the night, found me barely controlling my urges to leap onstage and be that obnoxious girl everyone snickers about. The lyrics were begging for it ("Hey girl, get on the dance floor and rip it up/ Yeah, that's what it's there for"). By that point I was so sold on Borrell and everyone else's performances that it really felt like the most logical thing to do.

Perhaps you didn't see Razorlight mentioned in many Top 10 lists from 2004, but if you looked at Top 20s and Top 40s, you might see them. Even so, in a year like 2004, they were eclipsed by bands like Franz Ferdinand who are, despite Borrell's claims to the contrary, better. If you ever watch Razorlight perform, odds are you'll be thinking, "Borrell isn't better than Dylan, but he ain't half-bad."