[7 November 2011]
Electric Six has been doing this for long enough that their novelty act is long past novelty, and people have actually started to accept that under the lyrical irreverence and the chameleonic musical approach is a solid band that isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Every time Electric Six releases a new album, a crowd of people sighs, saying “what do you know, they released another album, I wonder if it sounds like ‘Gay Bar’” before immediately forgetting about it. Now that this has happened once a year for about the last seven years, it seems as good a time as any to check in and see what Electric Six is up to.
Truth is, they’re still doing the same schtick they’ve been doing since celebrated debut Fire, it’s just that they haven’t been doing it in the public eye since that particular album.
In doing so, Electric Six has become one of those bands that plays a zillion live shows every year, builds up a small (in major label terms) but rabid following, and seems to release new albums for the sole purpose of having new songs to play to those fans. Heartbeats and Brainwaves, to its credit, reflects this perfectly. The band is incredibly tight and polished, committing 100% to whatever genre they’re choosing to ape at any given moment, and actually coming off as credible players of said genre. Vocalist Dick Valentine is a charismatic chameleon, crooning and carousing as ever, slithering his way through the big electric guitars and big drums and big electronics that are his bandmates’ playthings.
In fact, it is Valentine himself that largely defines Heartbeats and Brainwaves, functioning as its only truly consistent element and most identifiable presence. He’s sort of like what would happen if Nick Cave took singing lessons from Jack Black, except far less terrible than that description implies. What he lacks in sincerity he makes up for in charisma, utterly necessary for a band who takes as little seriously as this one.
Still, that lack of sincerity is eventually what catches up with him. What starts as a thrill becomes an exercise in drudgery at some point around the seventh or eighth track. It’s not that there’s any noticeable decline in quality, really—removed from context, final tracks “I Go Through Phases” and “Heartbeats and Brainwaves” (the latter a decent approximation of Neil Diamond with devil horns) are just as silly and catchy as first tracks “Psychic Visions” and “French Bacon”. But after twelve tracks of the stuff, it’s easy to get a little queasy from the irony overdose. Granted, a couple of tracks still feel fresh after multiple listens—“It Gets Hot” is a beautifully ridiculous dance-R&B track complete with a terribly cheesy rapped bridge, while “Hello! I See You” is a hilarious take on Mellencampian Americana—but even those tracks blur into the uniformly loud sarcasm and satire.
If there’s any actual insight to be found here, the back-to-back “Bleed for the Artist” and “We Use the Same Products” are sarcastic jabs at the struggle between consumerism and art. Still, to find any sincerity here is to read between the lines, and by this point in the album it just doesn’t seem worth it.
Still, as 14 individual pop songs to be integrated into an ever-expanding catalog of setlist fodder, Heartbeats and Brainwaves is perfectly adequate. Buoyed by the exhilaration of a live show experience and connected by between-song banter and the magnetic presence of a dynamic frontman, it’s easy to see more than a few of these songs being exactly the underground party anthems they are aspiring to be. As studio tracks, they are merely songs that exist on an album that also exists. Think of it as your textbook, to be memorized by showtime.