There's no mistaking that Glasvegas, who play San Francisco's indie club Popscene tonight, hail from Glasgow, Scotland, and not the gambling oasis that gave them the other half of their name. Their music is much more northern gloom than Nevadan glam; this is the sound of rainy tenements, not neon-drenched desert. And then there's the simple fact that vocalist James Allan sings with a strong Scottish accent, which is always a dead giveaway.
Or is it? The curious topic of enunciation in modern music is one I've touched on before, but it's worth repeating the point. Worldwide, most singers who sing in English do so with an American accent, a fact that is as blandly ubiquitous as it is blithely ignored. People from outside these borders seem reluctant to sing with voices that are their own, despite the fact that it would help them attain two of the Holy Virtues of Rock: authenticity and individuality.
In the brief but checkered history of tartan-tinged accents in rock, fellow Scots The Jesus and Mary Chain represent an undoubted, if understated, highpoint (they are also an obvious inspiration for Glasvegas). Admittedly, the singing voices of Jim and William Reid more clearly reflect the pair's almost exclusively American musical influences (Bo Diddley, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop), but an alluring hint of their native East Kilbride brogue also creeps in around the edges, highlighting the chilly northern honesty of the band's more rainswept lyrical moments.
At the other end of the spectrum there are The Proclaimers, as miscast as they are unavoidable in this discussion. I have to admit to having a soft spot for the other Scottish Reid brothers, Charlie and Craig, even though they are often written off, even in their homeland, as some sort of novelty act. It doesn't help that they are twins, or that they used to wear matching Buddy Holly glasses with lenses almost as thick as their accents. But the fact that they sing like they do isn't an affectation. That is the way they sound when they open their mouths, and for them to pretend otherwise would be to betray their folk-rock roots.
Thankfully even the many kickings handed out to The Proclaimers by the accent police over the years haven't entirely discouraged other Scots from being creative with their native tongue. Glasgow's Chemikal Underground label leads the way, with acts such as Arab Strap, Mogwai, and The Delgados all helping to reclaim the critical high ground. And, most recently The Twilight Sad gave Ian Curtis's mournful baritone a pleasing Scottish working class makeover, creating ripples of appreciation on both sides of the pond.
Glasvegas owe a similar-sized debt to the glacial bleakness of Joy Division, but they also add a warming note of Phil Spector-style pop to the mix. While there are many who believe the decaying corpse of the Sixties should be left well alone as a source of inspiration by British indie bands (yes Oasis, we're talking to you: put the Beatles albums down and walk away), Glasvegas may just be smart and original enough to get away with committing this venal sin one more time. Their lyrics are direct but clever, while the epic tunes add grandeur to everyday stories of absent fathers and social workers. And then there's that accent.
Of course, as a native Scot I'm probably biased on this last point. But the fact remains that singing with your own voice seems like a good idea wherever it comes from. Why pretend to be someone you're not?