There's retro and then there's living in the past. On first listen, The Electric Mess' old school roots are obvious: Velvet Underground, Radio Birdman, Patty Smith, and early Pretenders. But where most bands just settle for low-fi derivation and the occasional homage to lost gods, The Electric Mess are vibrant throwbacks to back when the raw energy of those bands was fresh. It's like the difference between sepia toned photos or saturated Polaroids and a crisp digital photo; when we think of the past, we confuse our perspective with how it really was. So, it's easy to think that the world was more monochrome 75 years ago, because we're used to black and white pictures. But life was just a colorful then. A chunk of the fascination with low-fi, muddy sound is that those old records were over-saturated and never captured the crisp edge.
Two years ago, I locked onto Falling Off the Face of the Earth by The Electric Mess, in part for the clean fidelity they brought to garage rock. It's been a long wait, but this year, they've followed up with a new album, House on Fire. I haven't heard it yet, but the first taste is definitely more-ish.
Their latest video (written and directed by bass player Derek Davidson) is Warhol-esque mini-film with broad stroke characters, graphic novel jump cuts, and stylized violence. As a film, it's entertaining, although I would have liked an instrumental intro behind the first fifty-odd seconds of scene setting. Once the first thrashy chords slap your face, though, the frantic energy kicks in like shot of adrenaline. Lead singer Chip Fontaine/Esther Crow summons Patti Smith's hoarse sneer, but the lyrics could easily be a lost Lou Reed classic.
Bands constantly reinvent themselves or get caught up in new shiny sounds, so it's refreshing to hear The Electric Mess digging deeper into their core strengths. Craig Rogers' rapid-fire drum work is still solid and his fills slip into overdrive for the chorus bumps. The bass is just as relentless as it slips between throbbing root notes and snaking melodic riff. Both instruments stand out clearly, without being eclipsed by Dan Crow's speedball lead guitar. His ragged tone matches Crow's rough singing like a jab paired with an uppercut. The clarity of the mix is key. Instead of a cheap sonic Instagram filter providing the illusion of rawness, it's easy to abandon your ears to the driving energy of the music.
What do they say, "The first taste is free?" Well, I'm hooked and now I've got to hear the rest of House on Fire.