We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
There's always a slight twinge of trepidation when faced with a record that our trans-Atlantic brethren have been clutching tightly to their obese bosom. Anything popular enough to chart at number 1 in the States threatens to have done so by pandering to the lowest common denominator - hardly the most auspicious of artistic omens for the return of the Washington band. This, the follow up to 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, has received considerably more press in the UK since the announcement that Johnny Marr has been welcomed on board as a full member of the band - whether this is a good sign or not is again another worry, given that the former Smith has arguably done very little of value since Electronic's Getting Away With It 18 years ago.
Whatever the effect that Marr's input may have had on the composition of this album, the end product is an often overwhelming amalgamation of taut industrial avant-funk and crazed invective - throughout the record Chief Mouseketeer Isaac Brock's vocal chords yelp, yowl and strangle with barely-contained mania, while his Marr-enhanced bandmates throw up a relentless Sturm und Drang of clanking guitars and reverberating percussion.
Like fellow Pacific North-Westerner Laura Veirs there is a salty maritime spray that permeates proceedings but the overall tone is more lunatic drunken sailor than Veirs' folky landscapes. Opener March Into The Sea is a deranged volley of sea-Pixies clanging, while despite its almost Sparklehorse-infused introduction Parting of the Sensory develops into an unhinged nautical rant before terminally disintegrating into an howling chant of "someday you will die somehow and someone's going to steal your carbon". Elemental piracy indeed.
Deeper into the disc, Steam Engenius twists around itself like vintage Talking Heads (a distinct musical touchstone throughout the band's existence) while the unexpected pick-up halfway through Fly Trapped in A Jar gives a cheeky wink towards the Sugarhill Gang. Indeed, despite both Marr's subtle licks and Brock's hyperventilating barking, it's the compulsive steamboat groove thrown up by Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green that often propel these songs into brave new worlds, bumping and clattering with persuasive intent.
Although the sheer density of sound peppering the album seldom confronts the listener with an entirely comfortable mission there are nevertheless chinks of light scattered throughout. Former single Dashboard is the most accessible nugget; a sophisticated skank with a neat "now here we go!" motif, while The Shins' James Mercer pops up on three tracks to offer a less abrasive vocal counterpoint. Little Motel is the eye of the storm - a tender drop in tempo that sees Brock whispering "we had made a wish that we would be missed if one another just did not exist" - but it's a brief respite.
The climax of this flailing beast is the vast Spitting Venom, which lurches throughout its 8 Â½ minutes from a chunky acoustic shanty to a huge trumpet-led finale across a deck of tribal beats, supple shredding and further incensed growling and howling. It's a microcosm of the album as a whole, an exhausting experience that constantly wrong-foots the listener, but it's also one of the most audacious pieces of popular music you may hear this year. And popular this band undoubtedly are now; you shouldn't be surprised if they don't score major - and deserved - success this side of the Atlantic sometime in the near future.