I’m already worried about my Washington Wizards. After two decades of futility on the basketball court the Wiz finally broke through this year and not only made the playoffs, but actually won a series before being shown the door by Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. But instead of basking in the afterglow of what was an immensely enjoyable season, I’m instead skeptical that they’ll be able to improve upon—let alone repeat—this past season’s success. Besides the perpetual dark cloud that hangs over the franchise, it’s a common phenomenon in sports that when a team shows a dramatic improvement from one year to the next, the season after that often finds them consolidating those gains and staying at the same level—or even taking a step back—rather than building on the success.
And that’s sort of what we have here with Electrelane. The band’s 2001 debut, Rock It to the Moon was a pleasant-enough exercise in farfisa-fueled, slow/fast instrumental rock. While enjoyable, it didn’t really prepare you for last year’s The Power Out, which found the ladies in the Brighton, UK quartet honing their songwriting skills, coming to terms with the fact that most rock songs sound better with vocals, and teaming with The Bespectacled One, Steve Albini, to ensure sonic perfection. If the entire album didn’t shine as bright as standouts such as “On Parade” and “Enter Laughing”, it showed the band capable of successfully tackling a diverse group of sounds.
To be sure, Axes is most certainly not a step backwards; it’s just a step sideways. The band returns to the largely instrumental nature of their debut, although Verity Susman does showcase her considerable vocal talents on a handful of tracks. Axes is the sound of Electrelane really blossoming into a band, relishing the creative process of making music together. The confidence is apparent—this set was recorded almost entirely live, after all—and Axes finds the band connecting on that primal level where the most immediate, important thing in the world is simply finding that groove and locking into it.
The best examples of this are the second and third tracks on the album, “Bells” and “Two For Joy”. Stereolab has been a regular reference point for Electrelane, and while it’s a sort of lazy comparison (female singing over Krautrock-inspired groove), it’s certainly applicable at the beginning of “Bells”. Susman’s downright pretty vocals compare quite favorably to Laetitia Sadier, but after only a couple verses she backs away from the mic and the last three minutes of the song feature the band revving into high gear. Guitarist Mia Clarke kicks up the distortion, Susman relentlessly pounds away at the upper measures her piano while the rhythm section of bassist Ros Murray and drummer Emma Gaze provide the propulsive backbone.
The subsequent “Two For Joy” is even better. Whereas “Bells” started in medias res, so to speak, “Two For Joy”, takes its time simmering before building to a climax. After a minute and a half of atmospherics, Gaze kick starts the song with a simple, steady pounding beat. As the song gains steam, the presence of Albini, who once again handled recording duties, is felt. There is no one who understands the soft/loud dynamic shift better than Albini, and each time the song ratchets up in intensity he masterfully controls the proceedings. Susman’s rare vocal talent is also on display in this song, that being the emotional urgency she can convey without words, but instead with simple extended “ah"s and “ooh"s. Much was made of her multi-lingual lyrics on the last record, but simply using her voice as another instrument in the mix. As her final howl leads into a blast of farfisa that sends the song in a dizzying final rush, Electrelane has found its high point to date.
Nothing else on the album matches the one-two punch of these two tracks (although to be fair, few albums released this year are likely to have a pair of songs that will), and there are certainly some missteps along the way. “If Not Now, When?” and “Fight Steps”, are similarly structured in their build to an eventual peak, but the lack of vocals and the presence of trumpet, French horn and harmonium aren’t exactly playing to the band’s strengths. The clanging piano that is featured on many tracks throughout the album can be a little off-putting, too; without vocals, it almost sounds like a mutated version of the Ben Folds Five.
The absolutely tuneless and directionless “Business or Otherwise”, which is placed directly in the middle of the record, is the kind of momentum killing song that makes you question whether the rest of the album is even worth listening to, Which is a shame, because then you’d miss out of the band’s delightful rave-up of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan”, a brief blast of energy where Susman again shines vocally. The more experimental “I Keep Losing Heart”, which sounds like it could be a Sufjan Stevens tune with its extended banjo intro, evolves into an effectively creepy almost-hymn with the presence of the Chicago a cappella. Album closer “Suitcase” is a proper summation of Axes, a 10-minute jam with an insistent rhythm that again finds Susman stealing the show with her simple chants.
Axes isn’t the stylistic leap forward that many might have expected after The Power Out. But what the album may lack diversity, it makes up for with surprising intensity and precision. The presence of a couple killer singles certainly doesn’t hurt, either. If the Wizards 2006 season turns out to be an equivalent to Axes, even if it doesn’t see them winning more than one playoff series, I’ll consider it an unqualified success.