Always living in someone else's shadow, the Charlatans have spent 12 years struggling to find their own identity. Whether it was singer Tim Burgess aping King Monkey Ian Brown, or guitarist Martin Collins ripping off Keith Richards, they seemed to be somewhat less than original. That all began to change with keyboardist Rob Collins' death in a drunk-driving accident in 1997. That year's Tellin' Stories and 1999's Us and Us Only hinted at a band united by tragedy and determined to mature.
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All they have been striving for has finally come together on Wonderland. On one hand, it's a natural progression from the last two albums; on the other hand, it's a complete departure. It's as much a funk-soul disc as it is a rock-and-roll record. Martin Blunt's bass has never sounded livelier, and Tony Rogers (Rob Collins' replacement) has found the perfect mix of the Charlatans' signature Hammond organ and techno-flavored loops. Thanks to Rogers' contributions, Wonderland is a warm embrace of electronica, unlike the awkward hug of U2's Pop.
Where the difference is most apparent, though, is in the vocals. Burgess, now a Los Angeles resident, has developed a man-crush of sorts on Curtis Mayfield and busts out a surprisingly capable falsetto on much of Wonderland. From the sweet and tender "A Man Needs to Be Told" to the positively throbbing "I Just Can't Get Over Losing You," Burgess displays range and confidence only hinted at on previous efforts. His vocal turn is not the only new wrinkle: This time around, rather than mimic their collective influences, the Charlatans have picked through the musical buffet and concocted a delectable sound all their own.
The tone is set with the disc's opening track; "You're So Pretty--We're So Pretty" is as funky as a bunch of British guys can get. "Judas" keeps the groove going while Burgess croons, "In the cold, cold eyes of Judas/Oh help me in my hour of weakness," sounding as soulful as Daryl Hall after a swift kick in the nuts. The first single, "Love Is the Key," is a head-on collision of the old and new Charlatans, Martin Collins' buzz-saw guitar giving way to a female chorus. But Wonderland's unexpected gems are the slowed-down numbers: "A Man Needs to Be Told," hypnotic with its sleepy pedal steel, and "And if I Fall," the song 'N Sync would write if they could actually write songs.
To put it simply: Their first six albums were good, but this album is great. Sure, there are moments that don't exactly work--the obtuse horn sample on "Wake Up", the cluttered chorus of "Is It in You?"--but they're like a zit on a supermodel: a little distracting, but what a damn fine package.