British Sea Power. The name alone strongly suggests that this young band is a bit off. Their stage show reported to feature props best suited to a Max Fischer Players production reinforces this notion. But ultimately it's their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, that trumpets the band's daftness loud and clear.
But it's an endearing daftness, to be sure. Decline... kicks off with a brief choral chant before launching into a treble-heavy, manic thrash number that finds lead singer Yan shouting about an attractive man named Fyodor, bad acid, gymnastic whores, and molasses. Naturally, it's entitled "Apologies to Insect Life." That it's followed by a nearly identical (but thankfully shorter) track makes one suspect that this may be as much a test as an actual contemporary rock-type album.
But there are rewards for passing this short three-song exam, in the form of a series of extremely good songs, beginning with the fourth track, the pastoral "Something Wicked." At this point it becomes clear that despite the pretty melodies brought forth through the band's guitars and keys, Yan's hushed, often-overdramatic vocal approach may be the make-or-break factor for appreciating British Sea Power. He redeems himself on the more straightforward hard rock of "Remember Me," then emerges triumphant on "Fear of Drowning," which concerns itself with provincialism (consensus: it's bad) and the need to escape home to truly appreciate it.
The band's blend of whimsy and wonderfulness is perhaps best exemplified by "The Lonely," which starts out in that jangly-yet-muscular vein that Britbands just seem to do better than anyone else these days. Sumptuous, echoing guitar leads wrap around straightforward rhythms while Yan delivers the opening lines, the song's charms unfolding on the piano-driven chorus: "I'll drink all day and play by night/ Upon my Casio electric piano/ Till in the darkness I see lights/ But not candelabra/ But things from other stars." Keys delicately dance about as the singer delivers the strange little punch line of "Just like Liberace/ I will return to haunt you with peculiar piano riffs," which is likely better appreciated when heard rather than read. It truly is a marvelously melancholy gem of a song.
"Carrion" merges the hard and soft sides of the band's personality, with a bluesy guitar riff skirting around and through an angelic, largely acoustic tune in which Yan successfully rhymes "cried," "died," and "formaldehyde." Multi-instrumentalist Hamilton takes the helm on the ballad "Blackout," which finds his Yan-like voice backed by Gregorian chants on the bridge. The 14 tepid, overblown minutes of "Lately" are perhaps 10 more than we need, while the stripped-down sound of album closer "A Wooden Horse" offers an interesting contrast to the layered sound the band crafts on the preceding tracks.
British Sea Power remind us that there are some things that make no sense, which is different than those that are just nonsense. While some of their songs deliver nothing more than noisy twaddle, British Sea Power are a formidable band when they choose to simply stop making sense.