British Sea Power - Salty Water

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British Sea Power is a vessel for many sounds

British Sea Power can be a confusing band. To begin with, the indie quintet's music ranges all over the stylistic map. The band draws on varicolored influences -- early Pixies, midcareer David Bowie, the Smiths -- but in large part chooses to invoke those influences one at a time. As a result, British Sea Power's sound can swing dramatically from one song to the next.

Then there's the fact that members go by one-word stage names -- Yan, Noble, Hamilton, Wood, and Eamon -- but don't say why.

And although members of the English band acknowledge that some of the things they do during performances are intended to attract attention, they insist there's no element of showmanship in other aspects of their concerts.

No one denies, for example, that the life-size, movie-prop brown bear that accompanies the band onstage at shows in the United Kingdom is a visually captivating oddity intended to be part of the show. The tree branches and shrubbery are also there to create an intriguing picture.

"We're really not a dancing kind of band," guitarist Noble explained, speaking by phone from a hotel in Los Angeles. "People generally just like to watch. So there has to be something to look at."

But ask Noble about the World War I-era British Navy jackets the band used to wear onstage, and he says they were just affordable stagewear. Ask him about the guitar and chairs he hurled into an audience at last year's South by Southwest music conference in Austin, and he insists he was just having a bad day.

"That was our first big US show, and we wanted it to go really well," Noble said. "We didn't feel it was going well. And I guess I got frustrated."

Marc Hawthorne doesn't quite buy that explanation. Hawthorne, the editor of underground music magazine DIW, said the band played a private party earlier that day, and the group's antics there suggested something bigger would happen at the night concert: "I didn't take it at all as an act of anger."

It's hard to explain what makes British Sea Power good. The band can't even be said to have its own sound. Its debut CD, "The Decline of British Sea Power," moves among tracks that could have been torn from the Pixies songbook, tracks that owe everything to Bowie (a bit of "Station to Station," a bit of "Let's Dance"), and tracks that have a theatrical vocal style that recalls Morrissey's work with the Smiths. And, as if to drive the point home, there's the album closer, "Heavenly Waters," which finds the group playing the part of shoegazer revivalists, with a sound that falls somewhere between the pretty, ethereal Slowdive and the trippy, clamorous My Bloody Valentine.

Still, British Sea Power carries it off. Its stylistic shifts can be jarring, but they're never off-putting. Perhaps that's because the band so ably carries off all of its various sounds. Or it may be, as Noble said, that while the sound changes, the band's mind-set is singular.

"It's not really a shift," he said. "You're in a mental state that you exist in through the whole show. You're having fun playing together. That's what we enjoy doing."

And as long as everything from stage antics to sonic exploration proceeds from band members' having fun, he said, British Sea Power is confident its audiences will come along for the ride. No matter how confusing that ride may be.

Author: Sean Glennon
Date: 10th March 2004

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