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Sunday, October 7, 2012

British Sea Power: Valhalla Dancehall


BRITISH SEA POWER: VALHALLA DANCEHALL (2011)

1) Who's In Control; 2) We Are Sound; 3) Georgie Ray; 4) Stunde Null; 5) Mongk II; 6) Luna; 7) Baby; 8) Living Is So Easy; 9) Observe The Skies; 10) Cleaning Out The Rooms; 11) Thin Black Sail; 12) Once More Now; 13) Heavy Water.

From the enchanted misty coastlines of the Aran Islands, here we go back into well-charted wa­ters once again. What else can I really say? There is very little, if any, quantum difference be­tween this record and Do You Like Rock Music?, nor could we have justifiedly expected any, given Yan and Hamilton's firm indie stance: «we found our Muse early on, and one does not easi­ly commit adultery and get away with it». But I gotta admit, the album title is a good find — cer­tainly nowhere near as cringeworthy as when they ask you a stupid question, the answer to which is completely irrelevant for the music, anyway.

The experience of soundtrack brewing did leave some traces — the album steps away from the policy of continuously bashing your head into pulp with an endless stream of fast, furious, monotonous rhythms, and reinjects lots of atmospherics: starting with ʽGeorgie Rayʼ, continuing with ʽLunaʼ and ʽBabyʼ, and ending with the obligatory mammoth-length epic (ʽOnce More Nowʼ), we are exposed to lots of echos, dreamlike late-era Cocteau Twins-ish ambient-psychede­lic guitar pirouets, and even «angelic cooing», mostly courtesy of Abi Fry, credited not only for vocal effects and viola, but also for musical saw passages — you get the drift: we no longer like rock music that much. Who ever makes rock music with a musical saw?

In fact, the long list of «influences» now, apart from the perennial Arcade Fire, would probably also have to include at least Beach House — ʽBabyʼ (eat this, Justin Bieber!) moves at a slow, stately pace, weaves an aura of melancholic beauty, populates it with chivalrous lyrics ("I pow­dered rhino horns for you and I'll serve it on a plate to you" — where's the Animal Rights Watch when you need one?), then fades away like the remnants of a relaxating hot bath down the drain. Probably never to be remembered again, just like any given hot bath. If anything, the vocals are just too non-descript, compared to Victoria Legrand's cold-and-warm stimulation.

But even though each of these «moody» tracks, taken individually, is no great moody shakes, collectively they do a good job of slowing down and speeding up the record to move it through different emotional fields — technically different, at least. Who knows, maybe if there had been no ʽBabyʼ before it, I would have remained untouched by the impact of ʽLiving Is So Easyʼ — probably the album's best track, and a good choice for a single. Driven by electronics instead of guitars, it is a cool, intelligent «Anti-Party» type of song, whose simple, catchy chorus ("living is so easy, shopping is so easy, dying is so easy, all of it is easy") could easily be mistaken for pro­pagating a «don't worry be happy» attitude. In reality, it is a light-hearted indictment of the «easy living» attitude to which I wholeheartedly subscribe — and fun to sing along to.

Of the rest of the tracks, «tuggers» would probably include ʽGeorgie Rayʼ (not too transparently dedicated to Orwell and Bradbury), urging us all to beware of anti-utopian future with a few well placed, rousing "why don't you say something, won't you say something"s; and ʽObserve The Skiesʼ, where they finally manage to hit the Springsteen-ian bullseye, I think (yes, growing up with Born In The USA blasting from the radio will eventually do that to a man) — anyway, great piano parts, high-in-the-sky guitar solo, and another anthemic chorus that is fun to sing along to. Only problem — I don't think Yan's «whispering scream» suits the mood here. They really needed someone of The Boss's caliber to rip it up 100%. What's a fuckin' loud anthem with­out a fuckin' loud screamer, anyway?

Overall, I do find this one somewhat more consistent, diverse, and generally intelligently crafted than Rock Music — never by a long shot, for sure, but enough to raise the final count to a half-hearted thumbs up. Maybe the main problems these guys have is that they want this music to be stadium-wise anthemic and intellectually challenging at the same time, and you know how hard it is to intellectually challenge an entire stadium. But, regardless of that overall judgement, you can always succeed at different degrees, and Valhalla Dancehall succeeds at least as often as it fails, which makes up for about thirty minutes of genuinely good music and about thirty more minutes of a nutritious, but tasteless sonic bouillon. But maybe that's just the way they go about it up there in Valhalla. Come to think of it, they used to say the same things about Wagner, too.

Check "Valhalla Dancehall" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Valhalla Dancehall" (MP3) on Amazon

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