Electrelane: Sunny Side Up
It begins with a swell. Twinkling guitars and a hopeful organ progression meet Verity Susman's yearning, siren-like voice like two fleshy hands interlocking fingers. Almost immediately, "The Greater Times" announces the arrival of a brand new Electrelane, a pop band that's been hiding in the shadow of a largely austere back-catalog, filled with dark-hued albums helmed by tough-guy engineer Steve Albini. No Shouts, No Calls, the Brighton four-piece's latest Too Pure offering–and its first with husband-and-wife production team Bille Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins–wells with a sort of musical optimism only hinted at on 2004's The Power Out, whose highs were coated in such a gloomy veneer that they almost skulked past unnoticed. On No Shouts, No Calls, Susman and company finally let loose the triumphant, hooky pop songs they've kept so close to their vest over the past decade.
Electrelane drummer Emma Gaze seems embarrassed to admit it now. But not too long ago, she was convinced that her band was calling it a day–that their last crescendo had been committed to tape, and that some journalist's final misguided Stereolab comparison had made its way onto the pages of some glossy mag. You could hardly call the trial separation a tough decision either–each member gladly put Electrelane on the back burner (they never actually broke up), pursuing interests of their own in every corner of the globe.
"We'd just all had enough. We had quite a few months off where none of us saw one another," Gaze chuckles nervously, recounting a time when no two band members called the same time zone home. Bassist Ros Murray was in Madrid. Verity was in Berlin. Emma was in L.A., and guitarist Mia Clarke was in Chicago. "But then when we all started thinking about it," Gaze continues, "the reality was that we each really wanted to work it out."
A change of scenery and attending a few football matches together was all it took to patch things up. And though each previous Electrelane record had been created in Brighton, the band was itching to get out of town to write new material. They packed up and headed to Germany, working out new songs in an old recording studio that Verity had stumbled across during her time in East Berlin.
"Being in Berlin was just so exciting," says Gaze. "It's such an amazing city. It was summer. There was the World Cup. Everyone was crazy. You could feel the history. We were in a bubble. We'd get on the tram every day [and] go and spend time at some weird place by the river. Maybe selfishly, we weren't affected by anything else. We just had lots of nice picnics in the park."
You can almost hear those picnics, that tangible excitement, on No Shouts, a record that is perennially at ease, even during the pummeling guitar zig-zag of "Between the Wolf and the Dog" or the raucous, droning squall of "Five." And Berlin's stamp is all over the album. "Tram 21" is a garage-inspired rocker whose train-like buzz chugs to a crescendo of staccato organ notes and a chorus of "la-la" backup vocals courtesy of Roz and Emma. "In Berlin," perhaps the record's most serene and beautiful track, soars on the back of a flowering string arrangement that quietly evokes the gravity of the band's German holiday.
But the cheer isn't a startling departure, perhaps because Electrelane still uses the same tools. Tracks like "After the Call," whose slow, stately guitars suddenly burst into a ragged and propulsive fury, is full of Electrelane's trademark moodiness, albeit tempered by an overarching sense of hope. However fresh and different No Shouts may sound, Gaze dreads the knee-jerk comparisons the record will undoubtedly receive. Throughout their career, Electrelane has carried the torch for women in indie rock–their ability to straight-up shred speaking louder than words–yet they're still saddled with unfounded comparisons to Sleater-Kinney or the recently disbanded Organ.
"Although we might like those bands, they're not making anything like the music we are," says Gaze. "We might agree with them on many levels, and we might want to play to the same kind of audiences, but musically I don't think you could get much more different than us and Sleater-Kinney."
Only the laziest critic would find S-K in the freewheeling ukulele of "Cut and Run," which sounds more akin to Beirut's Balkan pop. And the subdued organ and persistent drumming of "To the East" get by on more of a lo-fi Arcade Fire charm than any sort of motorik Stereolab groove.
"Obviously it's frustrating to get put in the box of 'women musicians,' Gaze states. "It's just always been like that. I don't know what it'd be like for it to be any way else."
It's interesting that Electrelane's most positive record would be unveiled now, in an age of suffocating strife. However inadvertent and organic the progression to No Shouts may have been, it's impossible not to feel as though the record exists as an answer to the prevailing gloom and doom. Gaze isn't so sure.
"We recorded the album when Palestine and Israel were fighting," she explains. "On German news there was all this war and bombings, and all the news programs were really intense. That personally affected us," she says, "but I don't think it affected us musically."
While No Shouts doesn't carry the extra weight of a political conscience, it does bear the hopeful strains of triumph over adversity, and Gaze is proud of the glow.
"What it took to get that record made," she muses, "It was a feat for everybody in the band. On many levels, it was quite an arduous journey, and I'm really proud of the outcome."
The album completed, Emma Gaze doesn't have time for nerves. The band is too busy rehearsing for the most important tour of their 10-year career.
But when I ask her if she's even a little bit scared about hitting the road with The Arcade Fire (easily the most popular indie band in the world right now), she shrugs the question off with a steely confidence.
"I haven't really thought about it," says Gaze, taking a break from a five-hour marathon practice in Brighton. "I guess I'm not really scared."
Then again, why should she be? The tough part is already behind her.
A primer on Electrelane's first three records.
Rock It to the Moon (Let's Rock, 2001)
Electrelane started Let's Rock Records in 2001, releasing their debut album, Rock It to the Moon, and the I Want to Be the President EP. RITTM is moody and mostly instrumental–save a few haunting choruses, snippets of children's voices, and barking dogs (provided by drummer Emma's pups Yan and Igmar).
Best tracks: "Blue Straggler," "Gabriel"
The Power Out (Too Pure, 2004)
Lyrics and vocals proved very important on The Power Out, as the band pulled poetry from Catalan writer Juan Boscán Almogáver, quoted Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science, and sang in German, French, and English. While recording in Chicago with super-producer Steve Albini, the ladies hired a Chicago-based choir to help translate Siegfried Sassoon's poem "The Valleys" into song. Fun fact: "On Parade" was featured on an episode of The OC, when the Cohen men go to Vegas!
Best tracks: The whole album rules!
Axes (Too Pure, 2005)
Axes, the band's second album with Albini, is melancholy but strangely exuberant in parts. Electrelane touches on politics ("Those Pockets are People") and the once-again sparse lyrics are reminiscent of nursery rhymes, specifically Grimm's fairy tales ("Careful where you swing that axe/It might come back and hit you in the/Yes/No/Yes/No/No!/Yes/Yes/Oh!" go the lyrics to "I Keep Losing Heart"). An epic record.
Best tracks: "Eight Steps," "I Keep Losing Heart"