The Power Out
pon first listen, one kinda thinks Stereolab. Check the liner notes. Yep, sure enough, the lyrics of “Oh Sombra” are a sonnet by Juan Boscán (16th century); there’s a quotation credited to Nietzsche. That’s nearly all the info you get, except a real shocker—recorded by Steve Albini. What th—? The sound is warm, gently glowing, and strewn with analog synthetics. It’s even got harmonic vocals, which must’ve been multi-tracked, as only one singer is credited.
While the lead off, “Gone to Sea,” is pretty, it’s such an homage that it seems like a time-warp. Lock-groove rhythm? Vocals in French? First album for Too Pure? Thankfully, the following tracks make it clear that you’ve been gently tweaked. Stereolab is referenced several more times, but less overtly. The breadth of material and chirpily fierce energy displayed indicate that the band is at least dowsing for source springs, not directly dipping from one well.
Actually, guest vocal is credited for “The Valleys.” It begins as a bass-heavy instrumental bump-‘n’-grind—you can nearly smell the cigar smoke as you anticipate scantily-clad dancin’ girls. What you get in their place is a dozen choiristers supporting a tuneful Raincoats. Wait, it’s a hymn, not a soundtrack for lewdness. No, they’re singing about shifting dreams, hazy lights, and seeing ‘his’ face shining from the peaks. By the time the chorale punches in with a resounding “He’s a man…,” it’s clear that Electrelane have definitely got religion about something. Whether it’s God, Sex, Busby Berkeley, or just taking a swipe at The Polyphonic Spree is less clear. Thank you, Chicago a Capella! A real marvel of structure, one harldy notices individual entrances and exits; the song is unified, and it evaporates gently away with a simple bass drumbeat.
So many of the vocals are evocative of lone or flocked avians, it can only be intentional. Sure enough, there’s even a song titled “Birds.” (In the event you miss those liner notes, this is a band of British women.) This tune and the next both mine a languid, bluesy version of garage psychedelia, implying “anything you can do, guys, we can do more efficiently.” But they seem happier demonstrating their strengths while singing about other matters entirely, or even leaving a third of the tracks as instrumentals. Verity Susman’s stylistic range is varied, and she’s tuneful, but she’s wise to give us a breather here and there.
“Enter Laughing” follows its own imperative; it’s a cheeky slow take on latter-day V.U., complete with an affectless Mo Tuckerish impersonation of an endangered species of warbler. Nonetheless, the modulated delivery of “You know I was just waiting for you to come over / Thought that you knew it and (7x) oooh ooh oooh…I’ve been looking out for you, I’ve been thinking ‘bout you, (5x) I could, I could not tell you” is perhaps the best example of her soulfulness—the varying phrasing on the repeated lyrics is a powerfully enchanting combination of chanteuse and restrained belter. It’s enough to make the instrumentals pale a bit.
The Power Out may be too clever by half for some listeners. Nearly every song has a hook, angle, or catch. It may be conscious, but it beats the smarm deployed by so many of their colleagues. “Love Builds Up” is someone’s fevered dream of The Feelies providing music for the circus clown car act. The disc even closes with a number that sounds vaguely as if Liberace had tarted up “Chopsticks.” There are gimmicks, but there’s musical merit, and genuine feeling to match the calculated charm. “This Deed”, the last great track before the whole thing begins to unwind, takes a swift approach from a whispering brood to a scream. The album plays like a Ritalined child trying to remember to use her words, and succeeding intermittently. I think The Power Out will get a genuine smile, fleeting or not, from most. I’m still grinning like mad.
Reviewed by: Dan Miron
Reviewed on: 2005-01-26