Prior to this release, if I had been asked to name a band that were likely to bring out a rarities collection, the name Electrelane wouldn’t have been on the tip of my tongue. It seems like only yesterday that the all-girl rockers brought out their self released debut Rock It to the Moon, so how can they possibly have created enough surplus material to fill such an album? The answer is two-fold:
1. Time has clearly been passing me by
2. Electrelane are not the kind of girls that let the grass grow underneath their feet
It has now been six years since the release of their debut, in which time they have signed to the trendy Too Pure label, released two new, very different full-length albums, and toured extensively with the likes of the Ex and Le Tigre, stamping their name with a great deal of authority on the art-punk/krautrock scene. When put like that, it seems perfectly feasible that they could have accumulated enough live recordings and studio off-cuts to fill up an album. And here it is, Singles, B Sides and Live, a disc which serves not only as an opportunity for fans to get their mitts on this previously hard-to-find material, but as a chronological trek through the history of the Brighton-based female art-rock group as well. The result is a release that is both an attractive proposition for their established fanbase, and a surprisingly accurate ‘Beginners Guide to Electrelane’. For those unfamiliar or out of touch with their varied past, a quick re-cap of their major releases may help put this record into context.
Their initial period of writing, up to and including their debut LP Rock It to the Moon, saw them feeding heartily off ‘70s krautrock, in particular the massively influential Düsseldorf outfit Neu! Producing a mostly instrumental improv-based vibe, they employed the motorik rhythms and repetitive basslines of the ‘70s German sound, and made it their own with their trademark head-spinning organ riffs. Four years down the line, Electrelane chose to reinvent their sound slightly, enlisting the recording skills of the prolific producer Steve Albini, and delivering their follow-up album The Power Out. Although still rooted in the krautrock ideal, this release saw them place much more emphasis on vocals, as Verity Susman warbled multilingual lyrics over more complex and structured tracks. Their new direction went down a storm with both the critics and their fans, winning them more references to Stereolab than they could shake a stick at. Their 3rd full-length, Axes, saw them develop that structured sound even further, but by rehearsing and recording as a group rather than individually, they created a more experimental and jazzy edge to their art-punk grooves.
Now working on their fourth album, due for release next spring, the girls have provided us with this selection of oddities. For the already converted, some of the material may seem a little irrelevant (the inclusion of their first 2 singles in full will do little for existing fans, with 3 of these 4 tracks having already appeared on their debut, and with a cleaner production quality), but it is worth noting that without these familiarities, Electrelane wouldn’t have done such a great job in compiling a disc that appeals to both newcomers and old-hands alike. Take “Film Music”, for instance, the first single Electrelane ever released from Rock It to the Moon, and the opening track on this compilation. A steadily built-up jam centred round moody organ riffs and repetitive basslines, it epitomises the sound of their early years. Although this track may fail to impress the fans who already own the cleaner version of it, newcomers are given the opportunity to hear Electrelane at their early best, as the girls hammer the hell out of a simple hook, with Susman playing her dizzying keyboard motifs over the top. For the veteran followers, it is the B sides that may be of interest, some of which are equally as strong as their long player material. The fabulously raw and punchy Bruce Springsteen cover of “I’m on Fire” is a case in question, with Susman’s exposed, shouty vocal standing up incredibly well against the thrashy guitar-led backdrop.
If the B sides alone aren’t enough to sell this record to sceptical members of their fanbase, the inclusion of their rather lovely 2002 I Want to Be the President EP, re-released for download purposes only on Too Pure last year, may persuade some to pick this off the shelves. The stop-gap between their first two albums, this three-track gem gave big hints of their transition into lyrical territory. Oddly, the title track seems the weakest of the group, with its monotonous synth bassline chugging along drably like a half-hearted Fischerspooner. The second track, “I Only Always Think”, is where the EP really shines, as the girls regress momentarily into their improv-soundtrack guise. Building an eerie soundscape based round a repetitive bass hook and basic drum lick, they gradually crank up the tension with mellow electric guitar riffs and soft vocals, climaxing with a relatively simple, yet utterly captivating organ solo. This is Electrelane on top of their game, jamming feverishly over a simple hook to devastating effect. The quality remains high for the EP’s final track, “I’ve Been Your Fan since Yesterday”, as Susman provides another mild vocal, this time over lush, hypnotic guitars and ethereal electronics, reminiscent of a Tender Buttons-era Broadcast.
A large portion of this record centres around live recordings, the majority of which suffer from an inevitable lack of sound quality, but are clear indications that Electrelane are a force to be reckoned with on the gigging circuit. Their venomous interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan” is the obvious crowd-pleaser, as they transform the sombre, melancholy mood of Cohen’s original into a punkified monster of a track. Likewise, the slow build-up of “Birds” shows off their bold stage presence, the latter stages of which demonstrate their art of taking an audience from mesmerised to terrorised, all within the space of a few bars.
For fans of krautrock and art-punk new to Electrelane, the strength and diversity of this release could be enough to make them go and seek out their entire back catalogue. A few rarer cuts make it verging on essential for the dedicated fans, too. Susman’s expressive Spanish vocal on “Oh Sombra!” (taken from their John Peel Session) sounds very fresh and passionate under live conditions, and the previously hard to obtain I Want to Be the President EP is genuinely breathtaking in places. This is a record with two minor pitfalls, both of which seem unavoidable in such a release: namely the poor production quality of early and live tracks, and the covering of so much familiar ground. However, the diversity of this record does highlight the inventiveness of this Brighton four-piece, a band in constant transition, with a firm ‘Up Yours’ stance to stylistic convention. This is an album that should, more than anything, serve as a reminder to loyal followers that Electrelane’s fourth studio album promises be a very intriguing proposition indeed.