The Washington, D.C.-based sitcom-core outfit throw their fans a stimulating if somewhat troubling curveball with Cancelled.
Are the Electric Grandmother getting... serious?
It was over ten years ago when I first became acquainted with the sitcom-core act known as the Electric Grandmother. Their albums sounded like lo-fi pranks, but their live shows were overflowing with earnestness. Pete Faust sang about sitcoms and pop culture as if each show was his last while his wife Mary Alice Hamnett projected various images onto a projection screen. These images ranged from Steve Urkel striking a pose to Ernest Borgnine grinning alongside the word "masturbate" to Bob Saget flipping us all the bird. Their albums were bountiful with short, catchy songs. Even kids could sing along to them if some of them weren't so vulgar. Faust and Hamnett didn't look far beyond a few keyboards and a rudimentary studio setup in the early days in order to make fun and tuneful music.
Cancelled is a different story.
Over the years, the recording quality of the Electric Grandmother's output has improved, resulting in a new concept album worth every keystroke and mouse click that went into it. Cancelled covertly tells the story of a man who loses a grip on his sanity after his favorite TV show gets canceled. The funny thing about this album is that, while it is heavily themed, it is light on lyrics and heavy on the music. The lyrics that remain are cryptic but certainly sound menacing enough, even if you don't understand English. This gives Cancelled a through-the-looking-glass feeling that is a far cry from ditties about The Cosby Show and Full House. The songs remain numerous and brief (17 of them clocking in at 43 minutes), but some of them operate as if they were miniature suites that change gears, key, and mood. This is, for lack of a much, much better term, the Electric Grandmother's dark album.
The Electric Grandmother didn't provide me (or anyone else, for that matter) with a detailed map of the Cancelled story, so we're free to speculate on what's happening here. The album opens with a keyboard motif named "Channel 24" that is revisited at various times through the album, each time with a different channel number. This introduction quickly cuts to "TV", where the protagonist gets sucked into watching a new show starring a man and a woman whom he really wants to become acquainted with: "I think they might be married in real life."
The show's earworm of a theme song comes next, "Police Department Theme Song": "Protect and serve / I won't let you get hurt." Here we get the gist that the show stars a man and a woman who work side by side in law enforcement but clearly have a thing going on between them. The viewer registers his "satisfaction" in "Feedback Lives" and discusses the show at the office with his co-workers in "You're Going to See Someone Not Drinking Water". At this point I gladly throw Cancelled open to interpretation, though it's safe to say that the mysterious and ever-shifting six-minute title track becomes a turning point for our hero. And by turning point, I think I mean that one's love of TV and one's perceptions of reality start to drift apart in strange ways. Faust and Hamnett summon their inner Ian Curtis on "Cry in Your Mouth", containing lines like "Blood child, blood on the child / Release the night unto the water."
Though the Electric Grandmother are using the same musical tools they always have -- spritely keyboard layerings and funhouse-warped vocals -- Cancelled finds them using said tools to tap into new areas of potential. Just when things sound too frivolous, the duo draws the blinds. Just when things sound a little too serious, the old frivolity pokes its head in for a few bars. The final song, "The End?", brings two things to mind. The first is Abbey Road, given that this is a 17 song album. The other is the ambiguity that the question mark throws at us.
Cancelled does not likely mark the end of the Electric Grandmother, but it quite possibly marks the end of an era for them. It could be that they'll no longer sing about pee or McDonald's. It could be that their intricate studio trickery is here to stay. Perhaps pop culture will have to curate itself now that the Electric Grandmother are spreading their wings to tell larger stories. Or maybe it's the end of the hero's sense of sanity and self-worth. One doesn't always have to know the nuts and bolts of a concept album in order to enjoy. What matters is what you hear, and I'm hearing the Electric Grandmother at a creative peak.