First impressions are allegedly everything, and as British Sea Power take the stage, they seem to straddle the not-giving-a-shit of Wye Oak and the really-really-giving-a-shit of Arcade Fire: on the one hand, their entrance music is arguably just a few steps shy of “O Fortuna” grandeur. On the other hand, one of them is wearing a SpongeBob tee shirt.
Another band might be well served by the diversity—or even just the sense of humor—but British Sea Power don’t do anything with either, opting instead to place all their bets in the same egg-basket. And that, as we promptly learn at the top of “Lights Out for Darker Skies”, is what makes for middle-of-the-road guitar rock.
7 May 2008: Satellite Ballroom Charlottesville, VA
But in this case, being predictable isn’t really the same thing as being bad, and to be fair, they’re pretty adept at what they do. The midweek, post-finals crowd is pretty sparse, and they do deserve better than this.
The thing is, if you’re thirsting for innovation, being able to predict the next guitar chord three and a half beats before it’s actually played gets old after about 20 minutes. But what’s worse: biting off more than you can chew or living entirely on a diet of McNuggets and Gummi Bears? I’m not sure I have an answer at this point.
At times, touring violinist Abi Fry draws out long, languid notes that connect each palm mute to the next. Or at least, that’s what I think she’d be doing if she weren’t totally drowned out by the guitars. When she wraps herself around the intricate finger-picking figures, it’s absolutely gorgeous. It also happens only once all night.
Gentle guitar crunches layered over one another only go so far, you see, and half the songs come across as excellent instrumental beds that don’t really put anything of value up front. Neither of the Wilkinson brothers is a particularly strong singer, so the band’s strongest moments come about when a trumpet meanders through or when Fry starts digging in. “No Lucifer” has the best drum work of the night, with drummer Matthew Wood expertly rumbling his way across the toms in what seem to be perpetual fills, each thud impeccably timed. Unfortunately, it all gets buried under the damn guitars again. There are three keyboards on stage, but I can’t promise that any of them are actually plugged in.
Most of the songs end with far too many notes and nowhere to put them. The set closes similarly, with that trumpet now pointed at guitar pickups that are then routed through delay effects which then come blaring out of half-stacks only to go right back into the guitars, turning the whole shebang into a sonic slop bucket. It’s quite majestic as cacophonies go, actually.
But given the preceding 90 minutes of linear pop-rock, the question remains—why exactly are you doing this, and why am I supposed to care? Come off it, guys. You and I both know you’re not really an art-rock band. British Sea Power make the sort of music whose point is stated adequately by its mere existence, and for which very little intellectual exertion is necessary. Yes, I like rock music. But British Sea Power seem to have a wholly one-dimensional compositional mind.
On the other hand, that alone shouldn’t be a deal breaker unless you’re the most intolerable of snobs—or unless you don’t like rock music. Sometimes it’s OK to not have a mission statement or a higher purpose, and if all you’re looking for is a warm body and a dimed amplifier to keep you company on the drive home, British Sea Power will give you quick service with a smile.