"Drape yourself in greenery, become part of the scenery." Rarely has a band so completely encompassed its entire ethos in a single line. Or so it would seem. When British Sea Power first burst onto the international rock scene a couple of years back, they became instantly renowned for their, let us say, atmospheric stage shows. Plant life, both real and fake, threatened to crowd the musicians off the stage, accompanied by woodland images projected directly onto the band, while stuffed and plastic birds and animals were tossed and kicked about the stage, occasionally being used as ancillary musical instruments. At the same time, the Brighton, England, band's vocalist became notorious for a spastic and confrontational, not to say madcap, performance style. But nowadays the band seems to have toned things down a bit, at least visually.
"The actual music was tending to get lost amongst the foliage," admits singer-guitarist-lyricist Scott (who is referred to in all the band's press material as Yan, though he doesn't seem to answer to the name). "It's just that if you're hitting a drum with a plastic heron, that's all people tend to notice."
Open Season, the new British Sea Power CD, is shimmering, huge-sounding and utterly accessible, with pop hooks that curl like tendrils out of the speakers and lull the unsuspecting listener into a narcotized haze. All in all, it's a far cry from The Decline of British Sea Power, whose style is reminiscent of an ADHD-addled middle-schooler, with extended atmospheric noise pieces regularly interrupting whatever flow may have been achieved by the songs. "The first record was a bit of an obstacle course," says Scott/Yan. "Which is both good and bad, I think. It was recorded and written over the course of several years, and it reflects that, where the new one is the product of about six months of writing and playing."
Open Season takes rock lyricism to new vistas of literacy. Simply stated, there may never have been a rock album with more multisyllabic words littered about. The songs crawl with "elegiac stanzas," "iridescent sheens," "amatory tendencies," "agonic lines" and "heart arrhythmias," to say nothing of "the occultation of the summer sun" and calls to "desalinate the barren sea." The experience of listening to the record can be a bit, er, cognitively dissonant, since just as sonic joy sets foot tapping and heart pounding, the brain is sent rushing for the dictionary.
"We all read quite a lot," explains Yan/Scott in his lilting, dirty-south-of-England accent. "So that comes out in the lyrics quite naturally. But I also pick words based on how they sound. I enjoy sort of caressing the words as I sing them, and the longer they are, obviously, the more options I have on that front."
While British Sea Power is entirely modern in its sound, there's a certain English nostalgia cloaking the entire enterprise. It's the same feeling the Kinks made so much hay with in the late '60s (particularly on Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur), where the days of English imperial glory were invoked from the depths of a depressing welfare state that's none too clear on exactly how it was robbed of its illustrious birthright. It's almost too obvious to point out, the Falkland Islands triumph notwithstanding, but the days of actual British sea power are long past.
Of course, to American audiences the idea of a band calling itself British Sea Power brings up a different kind of nostalgia, that of a time when a moribund post-Elvis U.S. pop scene was gleefully invaded by snotty, seductive, hand-holding, devil-sympathizing English youths. And while the boys in British Sea Power don't have an Ed Sullivan Show from which to declare transatlantic dominance, there's a certain Mouse That Roared pluck at work as this most English of bands prepares to take the sweaty stage at Mary Jane's, the most Texan of venues. "Really all we were trying to do was write songs about various ways of looking at springtime," says the band's singer gamely. "But perhaps there's a bit of Victorian tactical invasion in there as well."
"Totally wicked and equally ace" goes the refrain of "Victorian Ice," one of the catchiest songs on Open Season. I couldn't have summed it up any better myself. At least, not without consulting a thesaurus.
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