British Sea Power

Do You Like Rock Music?/Krankenhaus? EP

(Rough Trade; 2008)

By Peter Hepburn | 13 February 2008

Do You Like Rock Music?, the third album from art-punk quartet British Sea Power, finds the band struggling with where (and how) to draw the line between just-right and too-much when it comes to anthemics. It’s a tricky distinction, sure, blurred farther by the band's healthy sense of irony, which often tends to obfuscate the intended emotion. But even if the resulting album is as frustrating as it is compelling, Do You Like Rock Music? is still one of the strongest records of ’08 yet.

Bipolarity is sort of British Sea Power's stock in trade by this point; they alternate between raucous and restrained, clever and heartfelt, overblown and introverted. On their first album they followed up a sprawling, epic chunk of rock insanity (“Lately”) with a pretty little piano-driven song about diabolical repression and the Trojan War (“A Wooden Horse”). They’ve cultivated an aura of eccentricity; they scatter their songs with literary references and their stages with tree branches and stuffed birds. Yet they also seem quite willing to point out their own ridiculousness (this is a band that used to sell their own brand of Pomade). Further, any literal sense of bipolarity is reinforced by their status as a two-singer band; this comes through more than ever on Do You Like Rock Music?, with the brothers Wilkinson (Yan and Hamilton) splitting singing duties more equitably than on either of the band’s prior albums.

They also haven’t seemed entirely sure what sort of band they wanted to be. Their debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, was as disjointed as it was brilliant. The follow-up, the somewhat disappointing and more monolithic Open Season, showed them latching on to the restrained, artful pop of Echo & the Bunnymen. Do You Like Rock Music? and the Krankenhaus? EP, which preceded the album’s release, show them embracing their own schizophrenia, and while the results are neither as varied as nor very similar to those on their debut, they are certainly in the same vein.

The main dilemma for the band at this point appears to be one of scale. They’ve never shied away from ambition, but Do You Like Rock Music? is the first time that they’ve been given the chance to take that to a truly grand scale, a point driven home on the absurdly overblown opening track. Once they get to business, though, the benefits of new approach becomes obvious: instruments are clearer, vocals are clean, and even in the moments of static fuzz and shrieking feedback the fidelity of the recording helps. On their debut you got the feeling that things were being lost in the mix; with Do You Like Rock Music? and Krankenhaus? It becomes clear that, given the chance, the boys know how to fill that space. Of course, just because there is space doesn’t mean it should be filled, and there are moments when you wish they had toned it back a few notches. Still, listen to this record on good headphones and you get the feeling that Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Efrim Menuck, who worked with British Sea Power on these recordings, more than earned his keep.

It helps too that the songs may well be the best the band has managed yet. The front half of Do You Like Rock Music? is loaded with a glut of monumental rock songs. The three-song run from “Lights Out for Darker Skies” through “Waving Flags” is a fantastic way to start a record, laying bare all the fear and anxiety that fuels the album. These are songs about fundamental evil and the perils of modern life. Of course, they’re also songs about nudism, sea birds, and professional wrestlers. Like I said, the band is embracing its bipolarity.

This comes out even more on the back half. The band moves effortlessly from the lovely instrumental “The Great Skua” (recently mistaken by a friend for an Explosions in the Sky track) to the hard-charging “Atom,” a song either about subatomic physics or self-destructive relationships (or more likely both). From there, though, things get weird. Both “No Need to Cry” and “Open the Door” are quieter, more heartfelt songs than anything else here, or than they’ve managed before. Closer “We Close Our Eyes” is even more of a surprise. British Sea Power is a band with a penchant for epic rock freak-outs, and they play against type here with an eight-minute segment of drone and field recordings that build back into a reprise of the opening track. While I’ve tended to skip the closer after my first couple listens through, it bookends the album nicely and proves that they know how to do more than just guitar heroics.

For those who find themselves enjoying Do You Like Rock Music?, the Krankenhaus? EP is definitely worth checking out. Two of the songs appear on the album, but the three others are on par. The Hamilton-sung “Straight Down the Line” is lighter than anything on Do You Like Rock Music?, and sounds at points even like early Belle & Sebastian. “Hearing Aid,” for its part, harkens back to the brutal, fuzzed out rock that endeared so many to the band's debut. Closer “Pelican” is the rock freak-out that one would have expected on the record: nine minutes of chiming bells, driving guitars, thick organ, great drums, and just waves of noise. The truly committed should track down the “Waving Flags” single for the equally epic, even better “Everyone Must be Saved.”

Both the EP and the LP have their weak spots too. As with previous albums, the historical themes and obtuse references can verge on the ludicrous. While “Canvey Island” suffers from being stuck between two of the year’s best songs, it also doesn’t help that it feels like something of an inside joke. Do You Like Rock Music? actually makes a pretty good case for British Sea Power’s ability to be direct and sincere, and while I would by no means advocate stripping the record of humor and quirks, it’d be interesting to see them tone the irony down even farther.

Still, the success of the record on some level depends on irony and detachment. Any band that sets out to make an over-the-top rock record like this needs to either have their tongues in cheek or end up in a wash of sincerity and schmaltz (the Arcade Fire, U2, and Bruce Springsteen immediately come to mind). It’s not so much the heavy guitars or huge drums that makes tracks like “Atom” and “No Lucifer” so strong. It’s that Yan and Hamilton manage to capture old clichés in new ways and that, filtered through their weirdness and idiosyncrasies, the sentiments seem new (or at least more original). Doing that in the midst record that gently tweaks the musical clichés of rock music is a neat little accomplishment. Managing to make the whole thing enjoyable and more than a bit compelling is a feat.