Electre' lady land
All-woman U.K. band Electrelane mess with our heads.
By Jimmy Draper
ELECTRELANE, AT least on paper, can be a bit hard to wrap your brain around. After all, it's not every band that's fronted by someone holding a philosophy degree from the University of Cambridge, much less one who sings in four languages and draws lyrical inspiration from such unlikely sources as Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science and the Juan Boscán sonnet "Oh Sombra!" Furthermore, when not donning druid cloaks and posing with hawks for photo shoots, the group crank out sincere, cerebral punk that nods to such arty rockers as Th' Faith Healers and the Raincoats. Clearly, the Brighton, England, quartet are quite headier than the average rock band.
It's a testament to the talented ladies of Electrelane vocalist and keyboardist Verity Susman, drummer Emma Gaze, guitarist Mia Clarke, and new bassist Ros Murray then, that the results are so accessible. Whether simultaneously channeling Stereolab and the Stooges on their instrumental debut, 2001's largely ignored Rock It to the Moon (Mr. Lady), or taking an impressive, anything-goes approach to this year's The Power Out (Too Pure/Beggars Group), the band never let even their loftiest artistic indulgences get in the way of making real connections with listeners. So it's not entirely surprising that, despite an initially lackluster response, America is coming around to Electrelane's unusually eclectic sound.
"It was sad that the first album seemed to get lost, but obviously we didn't have lots of people working with us [to help get it heard]," explains Gaze, who cofounded the band with Susman in 1998, over the phone from her Brighton home. "Now we've got the Beggars Group they're huge. They have so many people and departments, and we knew, purely for that reason, that there would be more response to the new album."
No doubt bolstered by the label's rather plentiful resources, The Power Out immediately earned acclaim from critics and fans upon its release in February. The first single, "On Parade," a rollicking, tightly coiled ode to Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness, was a surprise hit on college radio, while the album's music appeared on an episode of The O.C. and the band made inroads touring with Broadcast and Ted Leo. And if attendance at their awe-inspiring, relentlessly focused gig at the Bottom of the Hill this spring is any indication, the new album has finally begun to expose them to the wider audience they've long deserved.
Not that Electrelane are making a bid for mainstream success. In fact, even with the addition of Susman's cool, pop-oriented vocals, The Power Out is a decidedly artier affair than Rock It to the Moon. From kraut rock to post-punk, the band follow their stylistic impulses with a refreshingly ambitious abandon: "The Valleys" enlists a 12-person choir to reinterpret a 1916 Siegfried Sassoon poem as a gospel hymn; the hypnotic "This Deed" gives way to Cat Power-style catharsis; "Enter Laughing" sweetly evokes the Velvet Underground. Throughout, you'd be hard-pressed to find two songs that sound alike, much less one that would've made any sense on the band's debut.
"The only thing we were really conscious about was that we didn't want to make Rock It to the Moon Part Two, and so maybe that's why this album got so eclectic," Gaze says. "We were also interested in exploring more traditional song structures, and the vocals happened really naturally."
Serve it raw
The entire album has an organic feel, actually, perhaps owing to Steve Albini, the legendary producer responsible for PJ Harvey's stark Rid of Me and Nirvana's defiantly lo-fi In Utero. Unlike with Rock It to the Moon, which was recorded with elaborate overdubs and Pro Tools mixing, the band looked to Albini to ensure The Power Out would have a more immediate, raw feel.
"We wanted to strip it all back, and it's kinda like, 'Who better, really, than him?' " Gaze says. "Mia had actually sent him Rock It to the Moon 'cause we really wanted to try and play the All Tomorrow's Parties that he'd been curating. He wrote back saying that it had already been filled but that he really liked our album, and to let him know if we ever wanted to do anything [together]. When we read it, we just thought, 'No way, it's a big joke!' Luckily, it was true."
Even luckier, perhaps, is that Electrelane had no difficulties with the controversial producer, who's alleged to have had less-than-harmonious relations with a few bands, like the Pixies, whom he called "four cows" and "blandly entertaining college rock," among other things, after working with them on Surfer Rosa. In fact, the women were so enthused with Albini's work on The Power Out that they've enlisted him to record its follow-up in December. That album isn't due until late spring, but Electrelane plan to preview several of the songs at their co-headlining gigs with the Ex and Han Bennink this week.
So what, exactly, can fans expect?
The next album will be "quite a lot darker than the other stuff," Gaze says unhelpfully. "Hopefully our albums will always be quite different from each other." Which is about as nonrevelatory as it gets in the world of Electrelane: after all, if there's one thing longtime listeners have been able to count on from these smarty-pants Brits, it's that they're not about to start repeating themselves.
Electrelane play Mon/20, 9 p.m., Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market, S.F. $12-$14. (415) 861-5016; Tues/21, 8 p.m., Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F. $13-$15. (415) 885-0750.