"I wanna rock and roll," declared Alex Turner in "Brick by Brick," one of the new songs the Arctic Monkeys played Tuesday night at Washington's 9:30 Club. To judge by the untested material the quartet performed on the opening night of its American tour, the upcoming Suck It and See -- due June 7 -- will be its poppiest and most direct yet. But the Monkeys are too canny and eclectic to simply rock and roll.
In jeans and T-shirts -- plus Turner's black leather jacket, which he soon tossed off -- the Monkeys sure looked like rockers. The evening's liveliest moments featured such standard rock ingredients as jabbing guitars, strutting basslines, and cascading feedback. And the band's newer tunes are less wordy and more conducive to sing-alongs than its earlier ones, substituting "ooh oohs" and "yeah yeah yeahs" for such Latinate tongue-twisters as "argumentative" and "totalitarian."
Yet even when he was at center stage, facing the 1,100-strong capacity crowd, Turner seemed like the guy in the corner, jotting observations in his notebook. During "Still Take You Home," the mop-topped singer-guitarist filled one of the band's trademark lulls with the promise that "we're gonna have a party." He didn't quite sell that pledge.
The Monkeys were friendlier this time than at their D.C. debut five years ago on the same stage. And if Turner's shoutouts to the audience seemed tentative, the group was confident. The 20-song, 75-minute set carefully rationed its moments of abandon, but the band's craft and intelligence was thrilling even when the music felt detached.
The funk-inflected, rap-savvy sound of the quartet's debut has evolved into something more conventionally rock-oriented -- in part, perhaps, because rhythm guitarist Jamie Cook has developed into a lead player. But the Monkeys still draw on block-rocking hip-hop beats, as well as dub's spaciness. They also dabble in other forms, without ever tumbling into pastiche.
As the rhythm section charged and the guitars parried, the band alternately suggested Wire, Black Sabbath, Rites of Spring, or Echo and the Bunnymen -- but each only briefly. "Cornerstone" provided a good example of the group's stylistic certainty. Live, it sounded more like a country waltz than in its studio version, yet there was never any question that it was an Arctic Monkeys tune.
The group performed about half of Suck It and See, and while Turner occasionally noted that a song was new, he never apologized for it. The musicians played the stuff they wanted to play, even closing the main set with an unreleased number, "That's Where You're Wrong," and slipping another one, "Reckless Serenade," into the four-song encore set.
The other three encores, however, were all certified crowd pleasers: "The View from the Afternoon," "When the Sun Goes Down," and "Fluorescent Adolescent." Turner and his cohorts may not be the kind of guys who look good on the dance floor, but their jolting, heady music can rock-and-roll one handsomely.