Most musicians don’t get as many chances as Celebration’s Katrina Ford and Sean Antanaitis. The duo released goth-tinged albums under the names JAKS and Love Life, and failed to stick.
They changed their moniker yet again, to Celebration, and adopted a looser, more psychedelic sound. Despite being produced by Dave Sitek and released on 4AD, Celebrations’ first two albums failed to find much of an audience. Third album Electric Tarot: Hello Paradise was self-released in 2010. Now Celebration has another lease on life from another label. Bella Union, headed by ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde, have picked the band up for Albumin. But the new lease on life has resulted in an album that at best struggles to be exceptional and at worst is nearly unlistenable.
There is a fine line between genuine eccentricity and calculated foolishness, between bold ambition and a fingers-crossed shot in the dark. In both cases, Albumin too often comes across as the latter option. Organs churn with sinister pretense, songs start down one path before inexplicably turning down another and then another, and Ford caterwauls confidently if not always on key. But what, exactly, is it all in service of? Albumin is the strangest of failures, a concept album in search of a concept.
Opener “Razor’s Edge” is actually pretty good when it slides into its big, apocalyptic chorus, with Ford exhorting the universe to “bring it on down”. With its near-tribal drumbeat and general sense of doom, it recalls a more camp Siouxsie and the Banshees, which is not a horrible proposition. To get to that point, though, you have to get through an introductory synth-swell that sounds like the THX sound processing theme, and then overlook a throbbing ooh-aah-ooh-aah effect that strongly recalls Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”.
It’s not exactly light work, and that’s one of the better songs. Also not bad are the two-stepping, reggae-accented “Tomorrow’s Here Today”, an ode to a newborn baby, and the relatively nuanced, agreeable “7’ Sensei”. Both songs feature chugging staccato guitar rhythms and simple keyboard stabs that, when combined with Ford’s husky delivery, sound like New Wave, but more in the vein of Martha Davis’ Motels than Debbie Harry’s Blondie.
Then there are a couple moody, “alternative”-type numbers. “Solstice Rite” is the kind of song title that really should have been put on the shelf for good when Windam Hill-type New Age music went out of style in the mid-‘90s. The song itself is built on whispy, twinkling electric piano and is reminiscent of Radiohead or maybe My Morning Jacket, as is the kalliope-flavored “Don’t Stop Dreaming”.
No, those song titles don’t get any more subtle or less clichéd, and the songs don’t get any better. “Blood Is the Brine” is the nadir, four-plus minutes of overblown ring modulation that is every bit as distasteful as you might think. But other tracks are not far behind. Just as Albumin doesn’t know what it wants to be, some of these songs can’t find their way, either. For example, the seven-minute “I Got Sol” goes from roadhouse blues to Memphis soul-with-an-“L” to full-on noodly prog to gentle, smoky balladry. Not in a Can or Gong way, either, but more in a Heart-meets-Queen-in-a-bad-ideas-seminar way.
If there is any kind of meaning at all to be gleaned from Albumin, it’s that Celebration do not really sound like much of anything else around at the moment. While a lot of current indie music has gone soft and fuzzy, this is unrepentant and in-your-face. With another respected, hip label like Bella Union behind it, maybe Albumin will be the breakthrough the Ford and Antanaitis have been seeking for over a decade now. Probably not, though.