ense, flat, and raw; all adjectives that describe the sound that Steve Albini-produced records achieve. Recorded in one day, the newest record from Electrelane, Axes, is a prototypical Albini album. The sound is monochromatic, despite the fact that it goes far in highlighting the band’s instrumental facility. While I’d not have guessed them capable of hitting the studio and tearing through a set this tight, such a recording situation results in fewer knockouts, but greater consistency.
“One Two Three Lots” is a two minute statement of intent, with its alternating sonorous piano and feedback/hectic drum and guitar attack, fading into lovely piano trills that also introduces “Bells.” Nearly fooled into thinking we’re on a continuation of the prior album’s feel, there’s multitracked vocal and a gorgeous baroque pop feel going for a couple minutes before the nihilist assault of the group kicks in, overlaying, rather than displacing, the sweetness. This swelling and ebbing continues throughout, within individual songs, moreso than between them.
“Two for Joy” meanders in gorgeously, a two note tremolo joined by one, two, then three sets of pipe-organ sounds, which is finally released from tenuousness by a foursquare drumbeat, vocal line, and a tempo that just keeps accelerating. It’s a rough template followed by the majority of the tracks, which frequently feature fast and simple repetitive chord lines, primarily composed of guitar and staccato piano. The formula works well on a track-by-track basis, but doesn’t provide a lot of variety, which is reinforced by the fact that few tracks have prominent vocal lines.
“Eight Steps,” a tumultuous tarantella laced with harmonium sounds and saxophone is a nice standout, containing a delicate piano minuet which rebuilds beyond initial intensity. After it’s successfully captured the listener in orbit, it adds saxophone lines and ultra-fast piano runs before the interlude, transiting back to full speed with ultimately patient cymbal licks, bass, and drum all entering in observant procession, reaching a plosive climax, then fading quickly.
After seven tracks of see-sawing melodicism and rhythmic assault, one could imagine a better interlude than the total skronk of “Business or Otherwise.” It’s got nearly as much silence as it does lone bass piano tones, skreeking violin notes, and thuddathudda drumwork. A little feedback here, some skittering snare, et voila, at last the gentle piano interlude the album was waiting for, all thirty seconds of it, before a more focused version of the intro elements takes over. It provides a break, but it’s not quite effective as either composition or improv.
Attendant press suggests that Axes builds off both their prior albums. While that’s true to an extent, I’d say the first is far favored stylistically. Which is fine, but a bit disingenuous. Even the warmest track, “I Keep Losing Heart,” hardly hearkens to “Enter Laughing” or other engaging cuts from The Power Out. It’s one of the few vulnerable spots that the album could use more of. Beatific banjo sounds, synth woodwinds, a (genuine?) cornet, complement the standard lineup, augmented by masculine chorale, and make for a song displaying both longing regret and fortitude. Delicacy aside, though, it’s still rather chilly and foreboding; perhaps what the album most lacks is a broader palate of mood, rather than stylistic variety.
The album finishes with “Suitcase,” aptly, as it’s a portmanteau of many compartments, practically an operetta. Beginning with a gentle etude for piano, and following with a straight garage segment, a wordless full chorus is added, then echoed by lead vocal alone. The breakdown follows, with slow organ, strangled then plucked guitar, and a reintroduction of the vocal line, drums slowly picking up the tempo until we’re left with a more controlled reiteration of the garage, this time with a more complex multi-part chorale adding complexity and swelling to an ending of somber joy. A very strong ending for an album/session that was in the beginning stages of ponderous.
I’ll always give credit for trying something new, but I’d expect a bit more from Electrelane after the strength of their prior album. While the results are impressive, especially given the strictures the band worked within; they’re just not as likeable. Conversely, a little punishment could make their next caress even more delectable.
Reviewed by: Dan Miron
Reviewed on: 2005-05-09