British Sea Power - Salty Water

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Open Season

It's fast becoming customary to begin a review of British Sea Power with an assertion about different they are. About how unusual they are, how (lest we forget) eccentric - weird, even. All of these things might well be true. The band's singer, Yan, struggles if you ask him to tell you if he thinks 'Open Season', the group's second full-length album, is actually any good ("Er, it's difficult to tell," he'll say, lambishly), a position which stands in quaint contrast to all those aggressive young things who are just spilling out all over the shop to tell you how magnificent they are.

Points must also be awarded to any outfit that has the chutzpah to title their debut set 'The Decline Of British Sea Power'. Kind of like Muse starting 'Absolution' with a song that welcomes the end of the world, this kind of thing suggests balls that need to carried around in buckets. Decline? Already? And what is British Sea Power anyway? Is it naval? Is it natural? Tax deductable? Are these people, y'know, hippies?

But 'different' doesn't quite cover the myriad charms and talents of this band. How about 'wonderfully different'? An example of this can be found during the writing period for 'Open Season'. Principal lyricist Yan was reading the newspaper (The Independent, thank you) and thinking about something he'd heard another songwriter say. The gist went like this: any writer worth their salt should be able to open the paper at any page and write a song about the first story they see. Well, thought Yan, there's a challenge. Especially when the page fell open on a story regarding the polar ice shelves, about how they were melting and all that. Slim pickings, you would think.

But actually, no, because track nine on 'Open Season' is a number called 'Oh Larsen B', a love song dedicated to a mass of melting ice, named after the Norwegian explorer that first discovered it. The music soars in the manner that would suit a helicopter shot over a landscape of glacial peaks and blue skies the only thing missing is a commentary by David Attenborough. The words themselves talk of "my favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf", of something that "desalinates the barren sea", like "sawblades through the air / your winter overture". Repeated seven times throughout the song is the assertion that Larsen B can "fall on me".

What British Sea Power seem to be saying is that he ain't heavy, he's just my extremely cold brother (who happens to be disappearing). What they've done is to personalise the inanimate, and make this odd love song sound both resonant and very real indeed. Curiouser and curiouser, says everyone.

The question you might be asking yourself right about now is whether this is just pretentious bollocks. Well, no it isn't. The lyrics sheet may often be oblique to the point of invisibility - often, but then again, not always.

This is a record that seems to be made up of feelings and emotions: an uncertainty here, a sense of redemption there. All of which adds p to an atmospheric and convincing set. The landscape is rural rather than urban (it's a surprise that the CD doesn't arrive with an endorsement from the Countryside Alliance) but what occurs within seems to be packed with meaning and conviction. British Sea Power are not a band that has thrown a thesaurus against a brick wall simply to find out what will stick.

All this unique oddness would not, of course, mean a thing without the music, and this is an album that features not a single duff track. More than that, it has plenty of exceptional ones. 'It Ended On An Oily Stage' is a sublime opening number, surely the only single release ever to feature the word 'Wiltshire' in its chorus. 'Like A Honeycomb' is a glorious ballad, a narrative from a son to his mother, that sounds as lazy as a Sunday afternoon. 'North Hanging Rock' hands as strange and distant as its title suggests, yet manages to grow and blossom into something impressive and strong. There's no sense of anything being hurried here, and the band are expert in their playing; taking their time, building things up slowly, exploring ideas, trying things out. Theirs is an extremely confident sound, made all the more so by the fact that so many of the surprises come as whispers rather than screams. British Sea Power essentially use the core elements of bass, drums, guitar and vocals and yet have made a record that us both strangely familiar yet oddly different. What they've managed to do most of all is fashion a style that sounds like a band that have already fully grown into themselves.

It all fits together rather nicely. The musical points of reference (often overlooked at the expense of the band's what shall we say? 'quirky' image and polysyllabic lyric sheet) tend to go further back than the last ten years. There are moments of classic Bowie in here, hints of bands such as Traffic, little nods to glories past, both known and forgotten. All of this adds nicely to the band's sense of otherness and remove, even without the aid of the lyric sheet. But when you factor in songs that are borne from imaginary encounters with Joan Baez or shitfaced conversations with statues in cemeteries (not to mention lines such as "whitebait and cockle shells washed up like a gift" or "agonic lines/ascendancies and amatory tendencies") then the overall effect tends to be jarringly, delightfully different. So much so, actually, that British Sea Power might, in a perverse way, remind you of early Manic Street Preachers. Not in how they sound. of course, but in how they say what they're saying. The Manics wanted you to repeat after them to "fuck Queen and country" and about how Motown was junk, the kind of thing that no one else was doing. British Sea Power are a million and one miles removed from that, except for one thing: no one is doing the kind of things they're doing now either.

Which makes 'Open Season' fluid and original stuff, an album full of fascinating idiosyncrasies and beautiful noises. The music and the group's unique sense of Englishness combine to make a noise itself that lives in the imagination. Far from stumbling with a 'difficult' second album, British Sea Power have fashioned an image and a sound that breathes with originality, grace and poise.


Author: Ian Winwood
Source: NME
Date: 4th April 2005

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