[21 October 2008]
These days it’s almost a mark of honour to be dropped by a major label. So should we expect big things of Secret Machines post-Warner? More than two years after their second album Ten Silver Drops, and down a core member, the group tries to recapture something of the energy that made them, momentarily, a refreshing new voice on the indie scene. Ben and Brandon Curtis evinced the Southern brothers-in-rock thing almost as well as Kings of Leon, so it was a shame when Ben left to form his own band, School of Seven Bells. With that, the group finally bade farewell to a New-York-by-way-of tag that had been following them since Now Here Is Nowhere—they’ve been living in New York since 2002, and are basically now a New York band.
Either the fracas over label allegiance or Ben Curtis’s departure must have ruffled waters somewhat, though—the music for Secret Machines was recorded in May 2007, but is only now being released. They’re billing the album as a return to some purer, more visceral sound akin to the muscular crunch of the debut. And it’s true. Secret Machines effectively channels the turmoil the band has experienced over the past couple of years. Even so, the group sometimes feel much like the Raconteurs—more capable, reverent craftsmen than passionate rock musicians.
Secret Machines may have moved on from the circular drug rambles of Ten Silver Drops, but they’ve retained that confident amphitheatre sound. Why make your point with a subtle piano melody when the amp dial goes higher? Truth is, the pop and prog elements of Secret Machines’ sound never sat easily next to each other, which may be why they’ve remained at the periphery of an indie scene at times hesitant to stick with a group for a seven-minute guitar noodle. But the more the group performs and records, the more refined and intertwined these elements become, until you can’t quite remember they were supposed to clash in the first place. Here, right from the opening track, we’re reminded that apposition’s still important—after a short squall of buzzing guitars, “Atomic Heels” spins off into vocals-first alternative rock.
The characterization of Secret Machines’ music as precise is only intermittently true. Here and there the group deliberately lags around the edges, cutting from a Krautrock-inspired mechanistic rhythm to sloppier, more arena-catering choruses or pop acoustics. Still, there are plenty of moments of locked-together pleasure. “Have I Run Out”’s harmonies-and-drone, Flaming Lips aesthetic quickly establishes a captivating atmosphere, all echoes and space. This is almost recapitulated in “I Never Thought to Ask”, a heady, squeaking, regret-filled pall of disciplined guitars and never-too-overt other-dimensional effects.
It’s a shame that, here and there on Secret Machines, the group lets the ideas behind their music drain some of these songs’ energy. I guess it’s just that, by this point, the group doesn’t really need to persuade the listener of anything. Established fans will respond with delight to the staccato wall-of-sound guitars; new listeners may not necessarily show the desired “Ooh, they’re so hard!” response. When Curtis sings “You’re always telling me everything’s oh, so real”, the hulking, obvious music fails to recapitulate a similar vitality. Secret Machines can be anthemic, but they’re no Battles; “Underneath the Concrete”, stilted and powerful as it is, is no “Atlas”.
So don’t expect another “Nowhere Again”. Secret Machines have repudiated the straightforward pop-rock of that charming single, categorically. They’re much more interested in that point where their songs take off into whirling spirals of guitar vamp. In reviewing Ten Silver Drops, PopMatters’ Zack Adcock looked forward to the “beginning-to-end killer record that is the Secret Machines’ destiny”. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s either looking more or less likely. Either way, that record is not quite Secret Machines.