Though globalization can lead to the homogenization of product, Electrelane’s cross-pollination of musical styles and approaches remains stunningly unique. Formed in Brighton, England, in 1998, the all-female four-piece wrote their latest album in Berlin but recorded in Michigan. They’ve sung in French and Spanish, and, at times, given up words altogether. Recorded in Chicago with Steve Albini, their 2004 release, The Power Out, featured an a cappella group and lifted snippets of lyrics from an English wordsmith, a Spanish poet, and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Having ingested all these influences, the band boiled their sound down to its bare essence before re-building its distilled elements for this year’s No Shouts No Calls—the quartet’s most accessible effort to date.
The Krautrock rhythms and farsifa undertow that propagate misleading Stereolab comparisons are in place, and evident as the band kicks off its set. Verity Susman’s piano pounds a path between jazzy riffing and classical couplets, while Mia Clarke’s flourishes of delicate picking and frenetic fret play flit in and out with the intensity of a sudden summer storm. It’s the lighter pop tones of songs like the haunting “In Berlin” and the heightened melodies of “To the East” that make this show, and the new record, so much more approachable.
9 Jun 2007: Johnny Brenda's Philadelphia, PA
Much like movie director Hal Hartley, who’s used recurring themes and characters throughout his films, Electrelane’s records revel in common stylistic traits, and, not surprisingly, their live concerts do as well. As they play, you can draw parallels between the heavy metal riffing of Rock It to the Moon’s “U.O.R.” and the punching power chords of “Fives” from NSNC, while still finding enough difference to make a complete comparison fall flat. The lilting piano introduction and ethereal vocal line of “This Deed,” from The Power Out, echo NSNC‘s quieter moments, but they’re not born of the same womb. Rather, they’re close cousins—genetically engaged, but raised in different states.
Fittingly, the night’s set takes songs from all four albums, plus one non-album track—“I Want to Be the President”—which mixes things up with a gurgling disco synth opening. While most Electrelane songs fit into two succinct categories—the instrumental and the vocal—they conveniently provide variations on these themes: “Eight Steps” opens with a jaunty French organ sound, while, in complete contrast, “If Not Now, When?” sets off on a ‘50s surf rock riff before drowning in a sea of dissonance.
Juxtaposition, then, is the key to describing Electrelane. Be it the librarian bob of lead singer Susman (a visual contradiction to her strong stage presence, especially when rocking out on the guitar), the presence of instrumental songs and vocalized tunes, or heavy riffing reconciled against light arpeggio, piano-based pieces—Electrelane is a study in contrasts.
On Johnny Brenda’s small stage, Clarke’s guitar fluctuates from wild coruscating feedback to delicate picking—often within the same song. Susman’s piano takes a similarly tumultuous tour of force, employing a range of pounding chords and pretty arpeggios that propel songs forward as if pushed by a thousand oars. On “If Not Now, When?” she even siphons Jerry Lee Lewis’s rapid-fire finger-play, creating an image that’s at times reminiscent of the scene where Beethoven plays at the mall music store in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Clarke and Susman are granted license by the band’s rhythmic backbone—Emma Gaze (drums) and Ros Murray (bass)—which drives each song forward with a metronomic, Krautrock groove. Gaze especially, with her abbreviated drum kit, fills out the space when instruments drop away or change pace, as they often do. And, in front of a loud buoyant crowd, Susman’s vocals, though sometimes flighty on record, are strong and assured.
Of all their new songs, “After the Call” meshes the past and present most precipitously, acting as a bridge between the band’s minimalist opening cuts (“Bells” and “This Deed”), and the rocked-up instrumentals encountered as the night wears on. With Susman stepping away from her gargantuan keyboard setup to take on the guitar, “After the Call” meshes an almost hymnal, ethereal sweetness with mutated and distorted math rock, providing a stepping-stone into an eight-minute run through “U.O.R.”
Emblematic of the earlier Hal Hartley analogy, the final third of the set is bound by similarities, yet nothing sounds the same. The classical articulation of “Eight Steps” weaves into the bluesy opening of “Five,” which, in turn, trucks into the piano heavy “If Not Now, When?” Only “The Greater Times” and the whimsical “Birds” provide a respite from the all-out attack.
Giving in to the obligatory catcalls, Electrelane encore with the Spanish vocal of “Oh Sombra” and finish with a ramshackle, yet endearing, take on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” In their version the Boss is re-imagined as a Germanic woman (rather than a Jersey dude). Say what you will about the band’s penchant for stylistic similarity; it doesn’t get any more eclectic than that.