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Tone poets
Electrelane play by their own rules on Axes
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Electrelane's official Web site

First there’s the quick thud thwack of a trap kit. Then a plectrum scrapes across nickel-plated steel strings, a low piano key is plunked, and a few craggy guitar strings strike a chord that’s at once muted. For the next several minutes of "Business or Otherwise," the eighth track on the British quartet Electrelane’s third album, Axes (Beggars), those four sounds maneuver, interrupt, retreat, and retort like four friends engaged in animated cocktail-party conversation. Finally, a pretty piano melody emerges from the chatter and locks onto a steady beat as jaggedly funky chords urge it along. And then it all falls apart again.

Charitable reviewers have described this as "free jazz" or "skronk"; others, even those lauding the rest of the hour-long disc, have called it "dreadful," "self-indulgent," "unlistenable," "irritable," and "arty nonsense." But when I reach guitarist Mia Clarke in Brighton, England — where she, keyboardist/vocalist/saxophonist Verity Susman, drummer Emma Gaze, and bassist Ros Murray are rehearsing for a US tour that comes to the Middle East this Sunday — she insists that there’s method to the madness. "It’s not noise just for the sake of it," she laughs. "Our songs come about through improvisation. We’ll start to play, and there’re all these tiny fractures of sound: everything will join together, and there’s a moment where you feel the beginning of a song before it breaks down again. There might be that 15 seconds or something that are really special, and we carry on from that spark and end up with a finished song. The album is full of finished songs, but ‘Business or Otherwise’ is a tiny glimpse into the way we work. To me, the process is as important as the finished thing. So that’s why we chose to put it on there."

That’s pretty heavy meta, but the "finished songs" on Axes amount to a lesson in how to be novel and compelling while borrowing structures and moods from such perennial touchstones as the Velvet Underground and krautrock kingpins Neu! Sure, you can pick apart the influences on several tracks: "Bells," with its snapping snare, tinkle-to-boogie piano, and chugging guitar throb, "Two for Joy," with its the organ drone, airy vocals, and propulsive pulse, are the easiest candidates. But Electrelane’s brand of post-rock ranges from the accordion-fed Gypsy stomp and delicate piano-waltz interlude of "Eight Steps" to the menacing Killing Joke guitar riff that defines "Those Pockets Are People" to the warm pastoral sweep of "I Keep Losing Heart," which is replete with banjos, horn bursts, and a gospel choir.

Axes has more in common with the quartet’s all-instrumental 2001 debut, Rock It to the Moon (released three years after Susman and Gaze first formed Electrelane), than with last year’s The Power Out, which had vocals in French, Spanish, German, and English by Susman and more conventional indie-pop arrangements. "I think we’re primarily an instrumental band, so it felt natural for us to make this record with fewer vocals than The Power Out," Clarke explains. "We only had one very casual discussion before we started writing Axes as to what we wanted because it all happens through improvisation, so you can never really tell what’s going to happen."

The same goes, she adds, for the Electrelane live experience. "We have a planned set, but within the songs there are bits where we can improvise, and there’s an excitement and adrenaline rush in not knowing what’s going to happen. I think that given the nature of what we’re doing, we all realize we’ll have good nights and bad nights."

Taking such risks in search of excellence, emphasizing process as much as product, has led some to tag Electrelane as pretentious. Clarke shrugs off that notion. "I don’t understand it, because I think everyone should do exactly what they want to do with the music they make, and what other people think or want from you shouldn’t override that. If we were to worry what people would say about ‘Business or Otherwise,’ for example, it probably wouldn’t be on the record. And that’s no good. We want people to enjoy what we do, but as a band we always do what we want. Otherwise, why bother?"

Electrelane headline this Sunday, June 5, upstairs at the Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST.

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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