Turin Brakes are Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian, friends since their primary school days in Balham, South London. They grew up listening to Prince, Sebadoh, and the Black Crowes which is cool, and learned to sing with their school choir, which is not.
Their debut album, The Optimist, was one of the best releases of 2001 and was nominated for the UK's Mercury music prize. Knights' distinctive voice, Paridjanian's earnest strumming and the cascading harmonies of their rising choruses were an utter joy -- an album of strange but memorable songs. The problem was that the Kings of Convenience had released an album called Quiet is the New Loud. This sounded like a manifesto, a call to acoustic arms, and Turin Brakes fitted the bill. Yet the new acoustic movement was nothing but an unwieldy net in which to swag a load of new bands. Acoustic guitars? Right, grab 'em. There was no geographical or even artistic locus and the whole thing was a bit of a nonsense. But Turin Brakes seem to have taken it very seriously indeed, and now they are making it perfectly clear that they are trying to escape that "noose".
Ether Song is certainly a departure, and it is all down to the production. Whereas the Optimist was self-produced with a real sense of directness, Ether Song is soaked in layered studio texture. This is the work of Tony Hoffer, who has produced Beck, Air, and Supergrass. Hoffer couldn't be bothered to go and record the album in Britain's second-rate studios, so Turin Brakes had to go to him and record in L.A. He then had the final say as to which songs would make the cut. If this has fans of the band worried, you'll be delighted to know that Hoffer thought The Optimist was "boring". Cue a nervous shuffle and a hesitation over the "play" button.
Ok, before the music, why the title? Ether Song? Well, it seems the boys had an epiphany when the album was being put together. All the songs they had written were in some way about an indefinable spiritualism that unites all of us. "But not Jesus," interjects Knights, with evident fear of Christian rock credibility-suicide. There is even a sprawling hidden track called "Ether Song" tagged onto the end (a preposterous slice of sub-Radiohead). Anyway, it all sounds dubiously vague to me -- a bit like when you are sagely told a piece of art is about the "human condition".
Drum machines worry me. They sound like Rice Crispies. And those hyperactive Snap, Crackle, and Pop chaps can be highly irritating. "Blue Hour", the album opener, begins with a ghastly bit of this percussive abuse -- the kind of intro you used get on those pre-prepared salsa tracks on a Yamaha keyboard. I grit my teeth and prepare for a synth version of "Copacabana". Fortunately, "Blue Hour" isn't bad -- a song about the time at dusk when light plays strange tricks on the eye.
The first half of the album is far more committed than the disappointing second half. The first single, "Long Distance", embodies everything that was good about The Optimist: skewed lyrics, elegant verses, and dramatic chorus. However, it is bettered by "Self Help", a gentle satire of the obsession for improvement culture. The refrain of "Tell yourself it'll be ok / Remind yourself that you're not just in it for the money", is an album highlight.
The slide guitar of "Stone Thrown" is another pleasure, both as backdrop and in the solo itself, which could be an out-take from Ol' Slow Hand's famous acoustic sessions. The song also contains one of those moments of spine-tingling pleasure that was the hallmark of the first album, a 20-second burst when everything comes gloriously together, triggered by the line "Your love is just a fucking game" (nothing better than an unexpected profanity -- witness Lennon's "Working Class Hero").
"Average Man" was written in response to a bit of negative criticism. Judging the general media feedback in the UK, they are going to have to write a whole album's worth next time around. Not that this would be a bad thing -- the song's sentiment is obviously trite (in a "Mr. Writer"-ish way), but it is a good song nonetheless. "Painkiller", the second single, is similarly flawed. While a real treat of a pop song, the lyrics are more than a bit dodgy: "Take the pain killer / Cycle on your bicycle / And leave all this misery behind". A paen to the penny-farthing?
While the electric organ flourishes and understated singing on "Full of Stars" is certainly different, the self-conscious experimentalism of "Panic Attack" is, well, ridiculous. The rest is just a bit mediocre.
Turin Brakes have by no means become a bad band. They are still writing great songs ("Long Distance", "Self Help", and "Stone Thrown") and Knights' harmonizing is still alluring. They just seem a little lost. The Optimist was filled with a confidence in what they were doing, but with Ether Song the reins have been relinquished, at least in part, to a "big-time" producer in Hoffer. The very use of the unifying "Ether" theme seems an attempt to obscure the general aimlessness of the album. It's as if in their desperation to flee their new acoustic bogeyman, they never really had time to look where they were going.