Alcohol in moderation is actually a pretty useful thing. You stop thinking about life’s woes for a moment, all the worries cramping your style are gone and you become a suave beast of a human being, ready to get your move on with people who you may find attractive. Just remember that more happy liquid does not necessarily make you happier – crossing a certain magical point turns you into a slurring mess, and that doesn’t really help you out. That’s how alcohol works in theory, right"
Apparently, I’m a botched human being. Alcohol does not work for me that way, at all. As soon as I enter a state of tipsiness, a time bomb starts counting down to the moment when all the insecurities ethanol is supposed to whisk away explode in my head and promptly turn me into a depressed wreck that’s infinitely more likely to ramble about the futility of life than to actually socialize with the people surrounding him. The incessant musical cue playlist in my head follows suit, and some choice bits from Heartbeats and Brainwaves come up quite often.
Electric Six’s 2011 full length is a confusing effort, to say the least. The band was on an all-time high, with Kill and Zodiac easily the two best records in their back catalogue. Goofing around with their self-imposed form, displaying more musical prowess than you could possibly expect from a short-lived chart sensation, the guys just doing whatever the hell they felt like and rewarding the few who bothered to take a look. A double life of sorts – paying the mortgage by pleasing the drunk asshats who came in to hear “Gay Bar” by day, whipping up improperly good studio albums by night. And then, something happened.
I’m clueless as to exactly what happened. The band’s power that radiated from the two predecessors is nowhere to be found. Perhaps the “momentum” frontman Dick Valentine mentioned in interviews is running out, and the unlikely force pushing the band’s output forward waned. One way or the other, Heartbeats and Brainwaves is a disturbingly dark and insecure record, the vibe particularly noticeable during the 8% of the album that isn’t about nothing. The band is aware of the odd feeling in the air, going as far as to urge listeners to “turn their car around” if they don’t enjoy what they’re hearing on the seemingly careless “It Gets Hot”. True, it could merely be a reference to the ever-evolving musical styling (this time around the focus being on electronics, with guitars being further back than they’ve ever been), but the rest of the album isn’t headstrong enough to support that hypothesis.
The 92% of the record completely devoid of subject matter projects its aura through music alone. Most of the songs attempt to be by-the-numbers members of the characteristically sturdy Electric Six back catalogue, but they’re distinctly tired and uncertain. They’re not plain bad, but when the filler feels like it’s questioning its own existence then you’ve got a bit of a problem. Plus, to further amplify the situation, when Heartbeats and Brainwaves snaps out of its musical stupor to propose some worthy ideas, said ideas reek of desolation even more than the dead filler surrounding it. A good example – “Gridlock!” is blissfully about nothing, attempting to be a carefree stomper akin to “Cluster***”, but a certain sense of dread manages to sneak into the chorus chord shapes, further amplified by their interaction with the vocal line. Another wannabe feel-good track, “Hello! I See You!”, shoots its vibe in the knee before the first verse kicks off by throwing in a single, purposeful sour note in the intro. The chord progression (devoid of the sour note, mind you) persists throughout the tune, and all the variations presented within share a similar vibe, so the mood crusher spreads osmotically and no matter how hard Dick Valentine may be trying to put on that crazed frozen grin, one can still see a weird wince in his eyes and the corners of his mouth.
And when the lyrics match up with the desolate music vibe, all hell breaks loose. Loneliness is a subtle recurring theme… which, in the land of Electric Six with albums asymptotically approaching 97% of songs about nothing, means quite a lot. “French Bacon” manages to bypass the ridiculous title by sneaking it into a distinctly un-Valentine’ish chorus alongside imagery of hochstaplers and solitary death in a county ditch, the lyrics laced with a succinct distorted guitar backing taking over from the verse’s menacingly simplistic electronic loop. “Psychic Visions” manages to be so depressing that the video starring a drunken Valentine terrorizing a lemonade stand (among other things) feels too optimistic. And there’s obviously “I Go Through Phases”, with the downright destructive “I saw my life flash by my eyes” part feeling like the pinnacle of the record, as well as my pained alcohol-induced states. After two improbable albums of Electric Six being one of the most suave bands in the world, the time bomb went off and the magic got badly mangled.
It’s not gone, though – there’s moments when everything falls into place perfectly. The songs that call back to Zodiac’s composition brilliance are the ones that shine the brightest. “We Use The Same Products” is, arguably, one of the most massive tracks the guys have done to date, with its expanding arrangement (at one point, the landslide of electronics makes me feel like the world is ending around me) serving as a potent backdrop to a confounded tale of brain-dead decay, a broken robot epilogue to “My Love Is A Knife” from Valentine’s Dirty Shame days. The title track is no worse – everything is fine and dandy for the first two and a half minutes, with some subtle orchestral cues and voyaging interludes keeping everything in check. And then the song spontaneously falls apart. A shimmer of a piano, a shy beeping in the background. Emptiness. Nothing. Then the drums come around and resurrect the track for a prolonged Zodiac-style outro that never quite manages to shed the hollowness of the minimalist break. Amazing stuff.
I’m not quite sure what may have happened in the year between Zodiac and this for the band to undergo such a jarring transition, but whatever it is, it hasn’t let up quite yet. 2012 sees the guys touring Fire in its entirety, releasing a rather average live album to go along with it. There was no studio album, for the first time in years. A long-time guitarist (and producer of many of the band’s records, including Kill) left the fold. Still, judging by the brilliance of the best songs on here (and the tasty moments strewn across the less amazing tidbits), as well as Dick Valentine’s acoustic effort, the spark is not entirely dead. Hope the guys manage to get their stuff together and drop a bomb of a record in 2013, leaving Heartbeats and Brainwaves as an oddly appealing, troublesome spot in their discography. A temporary crisis that they managed to overcome, and even during said crisis some good music got made. Time will tell… guess we have to wait.