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When a band comes with a goofy name like British Sea Power and has a predilection for dressing in World War I re-enactor garb, said band had better be damn good. Sure, the Brighton-based quartet beat at least a couple of headline writers to the punch by titling its debut LP The Decline of British Sea Power. But the group’s flamboyant choice of wardrobe just about begs cantankerous music scribes to compare BSP to übergoofmeisters A Certain Ratio, a fine first-generation postpunk band that got crowded out of the Manchester limelight by Joy Division and wound up having its own zany military fashion sense casually mocked in last year’s must-see 24 Hour Party People.
Don’t write BSP off quite yet, though: It gets betteror, depending on your point of view, much, much worse. For one thing, the band cheekily calls Decline a “classic” right on the text-heavy covernot too far from the part that says, “We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time…Even so, that will suffice…There is a land for the living and there is a land for the dead…” And did I mention that each member of BSP goes by a single name and that, in concert, the group eschews pyrotechnics and fog machines in favor of strewing the stage with tree limbs, fishing tackle, and objets de taxidermy? It’s true. Stuffed owls are apparently a particular favorite.
Any one of these would be enough to cause your more cynical rock fans to have grave doubts. Taken together, they make it obvious that this is one bunch of limeys just looking for trouble. So far, though, BSP seems to be pulling off its schtick with laudable aplomb. The British music press is hyperventilating over this band of “militant pastoralists,” and though faddish mass hysteria in that not-so-august institution ain’t nothin’ new, it’s worth noting that BSP has been singled out for high praise by both Mojo (whose stock in trade is an obnoxiously obsessive sense of rock history that goes way beyond knowing who A Certain Ratio was) and the NME (whose current editorial staff seems to think the world began when Noel Gallagher first flipped the switch on his Marshall stack).
It’s no wonder, then, that the sequencing of Decline’s 11 tunes (plus its two U.S.-only bonus tracks) seems consciously designed to lower any and all overblown expectations. The disc opens with a lush choral arrangement that’s half Queen, half Gregorian chant. It’s a lovely 40 seconds, sure, but as soon as the next song kicks in, you know it’s merely an extravagantly multitracked hoax.
With “Apologies to Insect Life,” BSP takes a careening, up-on-two-wheels U-turn, slamming its way through a spastic and breathlessly chanted screed that channels good ol’ American-style indie rock via deftly deployed loud-soft dynamics, biting surf guitar, and a shout ‘n’ yelp technique that BSP frontman Yan borrows from Frank Black. “Favours in the Beetroot Fields” follows suit. It’s underpowered by comparison, sounding as if the band were coming to you live from some crusty dive bar around the corner. But it’s still another fuzzfest, a frantic punk rocker in which Yan, in an apparent effort to vary his vocal attack at least a little, comes on like a latter-day Jello Biafra.
Both tunes are scorchers, it’s true. But like the soft-focused chant that precedes them, they’re also both ruses. Spirited and kinda fun? Sure. Wacky in a way that befits our sailor-suited heroes? Check. Anything particularly special or worthy of the miles of column inches the band has racked up in these, its early days? In a word, no. Any group of aspiring rockers with a Pixies fetish and a six-pack of distortion pedals could easily accomplish the same thing.
But that perception means only that BSP finally has you right where it wants you. By the time the Ray Bradbury-quoting “Something Wicked” comes around, your guard is so low that you’ll probably fall deeply in love with the track’s baroque arrangement: a little more of that choral business, a seriously elegant guitar line, a stutter-stepping backbeat, and a treble-clef organ riff that’s pure added-bonus bliss. The lyrics, meanwhile, seem to have everything to do with the band’s self-constructed image: “Please remove your field-gray coverall,” Yan intones. “Your works of nature are unnatural.” So this, you might find yourself thinking, is what everybody’s getting so hot and bothered about.
Well, yes. But be sure to save most of your lust and affection for “Remember Me.” A genuine rock epic, the tune easily takes best-of-disc honors on the strength of its ragged chord changes and guitarist Noble’s shit-hot Mick Ronson-style riffmongering. Yan also rises to the occasion, slurring the self-involved, say-nothing words (“Oh, remember me/Oh, remember me/Will you remember me?”) of the track’s stadium-size chorus for all he’s worth. Even in these market-oversaturated days, it’s a genuine moment of postpunk inspiration. That’s also true of “Blackout,” a song that finds the band spelunking around Amerindie for inspiration once again. This time, it’s Pavement that turns up, in particular the country-tinged “Range Life.” “Now you have drunk all your beer,” Yan sings over the track’s gently loping beat and plink-plinking piano. “Go drown your empty selves.”
Elsewhere, BSP demonstrates that it has plenty of antecedents on its side of the Atlantic, too. The band has clearly spent some quality time with David Bowie’s back catalog, and Echo & the Bunnymen have apparently been in heavy rotation on the group’s tour bus. The sweeping “Fear of Drowning” even sounds like a rewrite of “The Killing Moon”at least until Noble smears on several layers of slash ‘n’ burn guitar noise. Then the band sounds suspiciously like way-early Psychedelic Furs.
Still, BSP is obviously more than the sum of its influencessomething the group seems especially keen to make clear with “Lately.” The track is the disc’s should-be closer, a tune that, one suspects, probably began life with the boys trying to figure out how to play “Stairway to Heaven” and, failing that, deciding to make up their own damn classic-rock epic. They don’t quite pull it off, but the track’s a charmer nonetheless. It draws to a false close on at least a half-dozen occasions, only to be revved up again each time by that magical little sub-“Stairway” riffwhich sounds as if it were made up in the dingiest of practice rooms while the band got drunk on the cheapest of beers. It’s a thing of beauty, in other words, and a joy forever.
Clocking in at 13:59, “Lately” does goes on five or six minutes longer than it probably needs to. But that seems to be a big part of BSP’s point. After all, it was William Blake, another militant pastoralist with a tendency to run on a bit, who wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Who’s gonna argue with the likes of him? Not this bunch of wise guys, that’s for sure: If Decline isn’t quite the classic it oughta be, it’s still one damn palatial debut. CP