(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Recording review - The Electric Mess, House on Fire (2014)

Vivid performances and smoldering personality will take you back
Browsing through retro-inspired rock band offerings is like picking your favorite movie franchise reboot. Occasionally, an album strikes a nerve, but nothing can really replace dropping the needle on The Velvet Underground and Nico, sinking back into thrashy joy of The Pretenders, or sampling the cream of late '60s psychedelic pop bands from Northern California on a Rhino collection. It's hard for younger bands to slide in deeply enough to get past the simple surface characteristics, and those that come closest to the elusive feel rarely have enough personality to be memorable. The Electric Mess beats those odds and adroitly covers the musical dive while lead singer Esther Crow and her drag alter ego, Chip Fontaine, provide the personality to close the deal. Their last album, Falling Off the Face of the Earth (review), was notable because the band's clear love of primitive rock came through in beautiful fidelity . On House on Fire, they capture the raw energy of the garage more strongly than ever, with emphasis on raw. Although these tracks never devolve into muddiness, the engineering isn't quite as crisp and nuanced as Falling. But The Electric Mess makes up for it by bringing a vivid spark to their performance that puts the listener right at the edge of the stage, looking up in wonder.

I've already talked about the lead single, "Better to be Lucky Than Good", with its Lou Reed characters and story line propelled by Patti Smith proto-punk. Fontaine's smoldering voice scratches like a warm woolen blanket, selling the song with jaded nonchalance. It's a strong piece to lead off the album, but it also turns out to be fairly representative. Its big finish barely leaves time to catch your breath before they launch into the tight power pop rock of the title track. This time, Dan Crow's guitar paces restlessly within a cage of organ fills and vocals. In constant motion, Crow occasionally lets it loose enough to wail or throw itself against the bars, but when the solo comes around, it's clear that he hasn't run out of ideas as tears his way across the fretboard.

Later, on "Get Me Outta the Country", Crow's guitar slips off the leash and romps its way to Shredsville. This would be a great tune to catch live, to feel the primitive rite intensity and just hang on for the ride. But even while the lead slips out into the weeds, the rock steady drum work and anchoring bass hold it together. The Electric Mess wraps up the tune with a fade-out ending, a technique that's fallen out fashion, but this captures the loose unwinding that a live version would expand upon.

Lead singer Esther Crow spends most of House on Fire in her Chip Fontaine drag persona, with his hoarse growl and macho attitude giving the songs an earthy grounding. On "She Got Fangs", Fontaine's rough huskiness is the focal point against the moody psychedelic sway. His tale of seductive entrapment and then becoming the hunter himself is a simple enough story, but his swagger recalls Van Morrison fronting Them on "Gloria". While he hits his strongest stride on the thrashy blues sprint of "Beat Skipping Heart", my favorite Fontaine moment is the campy and theatrical spoken word section on the "Leavin' Me Hangin'", where he calls out his quarry, "Girl, I wandered the streets looking for you. Saw a couple of your friends, all tarted up. They lied and said they didn't know where you were . Girl,you ain't no Queen of Sheba and I ain't no piece of liver. But you never deliver." It's another case that calls for the live experience to see how far he'd push it.

Esther Crow takes her first real break from Fontaine on "There's Nothing You Can Do", which features keyboard player Oweinama Biu on lead vocals while she drops into a supporting role. Biu summons a good sense of desperation that fits the mood of the piece and it's a nice change to hear the two of them singing together.

House on Fire wraps up with a little bit of a bait and switch. "Every Girl Deserves a Song" initially sounds like a wild instrumental coda to the previous tune, but the minute long vamping builds to a climax only to fall into a delightful Mod pop song. Esther Crow summons her inner Cher (a la "The Beat Goes On") and brings a touch of hippy girl soul to her singing. Her laid back vocals gloss over the jarring disconnect between the frantic intro and the opiated groove, providing a warm embrace of lotus-eating bliss. Her lyrics bridge Summer of Love pop and its hidden underground scene, "Why don't you bring some Percocets / To help me cool my jets / Why don't you bring an unapproachable vamp / Just to round up the tone of my amp." Dan Crow's wah-wah guitar and Biu's ringing organ tone complement the song with their own patchouli-scented textures. Along the way, the tune also conjures the perfect psychedelic descriptor in the phrase, "Fizzy Bacchanal", which is begging to become a band name at some point. After the amphetamine immediacy of the other tracks, this gentle letdown is a sweet closing note from whatever alternate past that The Electric Mess is channeling. Rather than conflict, it recharges the listener enough to tackle "Better to be Lucky Than Good" all over again to ride that tiger one more time.

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