British Sea Power - Salty Water

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Open Season

If the 4/4 backbeats, swirling clouds of guitar sparkling with recessed synthesizers, and bright major-key leads of Open Season's first three tracks aren't proof enough, "Like a Honeycomb" seals it: British Sea Power have followed a clamorous post-punk debut with an album of unexpectedly gentle new-wave guitar pop that touches on, to name a few, early Cure, the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, David Bowie, the Psychedelic Furs, and, most blatantly, Bossanova-era Pixies.

While the entirety of this unvaried but engaging sophomore album has the nostalgic feel of 80s new wave gone arena rock, it's "Like a Honeycomb" that really tips British Sea Power's hand. The track recasts the Talking Heads' anti-consumerism screed "Once in a Lifetime" as make-out music for a middle-school prom, transmuting stark synths into arena-folk strumming and stepping all over the chorus, lyrically and melodically: "In between the morning and the evening light/ That's how the days go by," Yan sings with gruff abandon. It's more bombastic and syrupy, less paranoid and stiltedly funky, but unmistakably indebted.

Same as it ever was: British Sea Power's accessible new sound wasn't conjured out of thin air; these same pop melodies lurked under the distressed surface of their debut. You just had to listen closely-- around the strident guitars and train-wrecking rhythms, the barked love song to Dostoevsky and the evil dwarf harmonies-- to find them. Open Season inverts The Decline of British Sea Power's ratio of melody to dissonance, weaving thin threads of discord through sunny expanses.

For a band known for unpredictability and idiosyncrasy-- performing in World War I regalia for no discernible reason, decorating their stages with fresh-cut local foliage, and interpolating their post-punk pastorales with violent outbursts and prerecorded birdsongs-- wrangling their esoteric lyrics into simple verse/chorus/verse patterns and rounding off the acute angles of their guitars is rather ingenious. They've unpredictably become predictable.

Predictability, in the context of a record review, isn't usually a compliment. But a one-trick pony's not so bad if it's a good enough trick, and the resultant feeling of familiarity will be more akin to that of a kid anticipating another long summer than a jaded adult staring down the barrel of another work week.

Retaining his arcane subjects but couching them in deceptively simple terms, Yan traffics in some tricky lyrical inversions. If you want to sing about death in a pop song, you've got to make it sound as if you're singing about love, and at least two songs on Open Season pull this off. On "It Ended on an Oily Stage", Yan sings "I wrote elegiac stanzas for you/ I hope and pray that they come true" with such earnest tenderness that it takes a minute to register that an elegy is a lament for someone deceased.

"North Hanging Rock"-- a weightless, atmospheric trellis that guitar and piano snake through like ivy-- is the most superficially sweet song about death ("Drape yourself in greenery/ Become part of the scenery") this side of Modest Mouse. And on "Oh Larsen B", Yan's invitation to his "favorite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf" to "fall on me" could be construed as either lovelorn or suicidal. By maintaining their singular aesthetic while venturing into more inviting pop sounds, the weirdest band from Brighton just might have become the smartest.


Author: Brian Howe
Source: Pitchfork
Date: 4th April 2005

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