While much of ’90s Britpop was a parochial celebration that smacked of an island race trying hard to find something to feel good about long after the sun had set, the Empire struck back with British Sea Power. Against the grain of Britpop’s often faux working-class posturing and its focus on a post-war leisure culture of pubs, clubbing and football, Brighton’s British Sea Power presented themselves as a distinctly middle-class bunch with an altogether more wholesome outlook.
Rather than partake in vulgar New Laddism, Yan (vocals/guitar), Noble (guitar), Hamilton (bass/vocals), Eamon (keyboards) and Wood (drums) espouse a Boy’s Own aesthetic. With no small measure of humor, they nostalgically evoke the era of the gentleman amateur and the spirit of exploration and adventure that drove Britain’s imperial project (although they also exhibit some markedly pan-Europeanist tendencies). They conduct their career almost like a military campaign, pursuing an eccentric, impenetrable plan reflected in their cover art; odd manifesto-like statements; newsletters dated according to the French revolutionary calendar and penned by “Old Sarge”; abstruse lyrics full of geographical, historical, mythical and literary references; and striking sartorial choices.
There’s no Es and wizz to be sorted here — British Sea Power take a healthy interest in the countryside and outdoor life and have been known to bring packed lunches to interviews. They’re certainly interested in birds, but from an ornithological perspective. Yan, Hamilton and Wood hail from the Lake District, where they allegedly met Noble while rambling. How very rock ‘n’ roll. Along with Iggy Pop, they cite such inspirations as Charles Lindbergh, Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, and Tomás Masaryk (the first president of the former Czechoslovakia). These unlikely strands of influence come together during dramatic live performances: they adorn stages with foliage and life-sized models of members of the avian family; they’ve warmed up audiences with poetry by C. Day Lewis; and they sport military-style attire (the “militant cabin boy look,” apparently). It’s not unknown for vocalist Yan to perform gymnastics. Impressed by their spirited live show — more than by their first, self-released single — Geoff Travis signed them to Rough Trade in 2001.
You’d expect the music itself to buckle under the weight of such a contrived and elaborate concept, but it holds up reasonably well. A couple of key factors work in their favor. Their sound has thankfully little to do with their ironic image, which saves them from becoming a one-line comedy troupe (unlike, say, the Darkness). And although British Sea Power engage in recycling, they draw on worthwhile sources (Echo and the Bunnymen, Wire, Wedding Present, Psychedelic Furs, Joy Division, Pixies) and bring those influences to bear on their own sound rather than simply reproduce them. The Decline of British Sea Power took a surprisingly long time to arrive — especially considering that half of it had already appeared on singles — but it wasn’t disappointing. The unsettling bipolar mood alternates between brooding menace and jagged intensity. “Apologies to Insect Life,” an obscure homage to Dostoyevsky with abrasive guitar and breathless elliptical vocals, and the minute-long angular rush of “Favours in the Beetroot Fields” represent the band’s frenetic tendencies. Elsewhere, a less manic (albeit no less dark and moody) feel prevails. “Something Wicked” expands the palette somewhat with its retro-organ coloring; “It starts with love for foliage, and ends in camouflage” offers a capsule summary of the band’s curious aesthetic. The atmospheric quarter-hour epic “Lately” builds to a noisy conclusion, in the process setting forth a new (and unlikely) mythical tradition with Lancashire’s most famous banjulele-playing son at its center: “Replacing Hercules / With the heroic sounds of Formby.” No album by a band so steeped in valor, bravery and tradition would be complete without a rousing anthem, and the driving “Remember Me” delivers in that regard. The Decline of British Sea Power might not yet be the band’s finest hour, but it’s a promising start.
The 2003 EPs Carrion /Apologies to Insect Life and Remember Me combine album tracks and previously unreleased songs; the bulk of this material made up the nine-track Japan-only Remember Me mini-album. Another Japanese EP, The Spirit of St. Louis, offers Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat” and a couple of earlier B-sides, including new versions of “A Lovely Day Tomorrow” (in English and Czech) with Prague band the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. These new versions, along with a traditional Czech song, were also released in a limited run of 1942 to commemorate the assassination by partisans of Reinhard Heydrich (Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia).
Open Season is the second long-playing installment in British Sea Power’s quest to colonize listeners. Their debut worked recognizable influences into striking new configurations, but those sources don’t make their presence felt so directly here; the band is shaking off the anxiety of influence and asserting itself with a less explicitly referential approach. However, the results aren’t as immediately or consistently engaging. The group reins in its oblique, idiosyncratic dynamics, smooths out some of the angles and lowers the energy level a few notches. This may be a more mature effort, but in places that sound is ordinary and unadventurous. The opener, “It Ended on an Oily Stage,” recaptures something of the tightly wound melodic feel of the debut’s best material, but that initial surge of energy is dissipated by such catchy-but-unimaginative pop songs as “Please Stand Up,” “To Get to Sleep,” “How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?” and the jangly “Victorian Ice.” There’s an overemphasis on choruses you can sing having heard once, and a general air of predictability as numbers telegraph their directions and deliver few surprises. For the most part, the songs plow a familiar lyrical furrow: elemental and bucolic imagery abounds via mentions of Arctic icescapes and the fields of Wiltshire, as well as appeals to “drape yourself in greenery / become part of the scenery.” As with earlier successes, the memorable numbers remain quaintly literate and ironically recherché, featuring such un-rock scrabble words as “elegiac,” “avataric” and “iridescent.” On “Oh Larsen B,” the most melodically satisfying number (and perhaps the only rock song ever to use the word “desalinate”), Yan sings a tremulous, breathy love song to an Arctic ice shelf: “My favourite most foremost coastal Antarctic shelf / Oh Larsen B you can fall on me / Oh Larsen B desalinate the barren sea.” (Larsen B did just that in March 2002.) While birds previously appeared as stage decoration, feathered friends actually contribute to this album’s other standouts. Finches twitter amid the idyllic pastoral introduction to “North Hanging Rock” and gulls cry on the epic closer, “True Adventures”; in keeping with its title, the mix of shoegazing ambient swathes, unusual tempo changes and squalling noise delicately evokes a triumphant, anthemic spirit, forging a sort of indie- rock “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover.” Dame Vera Lynn would be proud. Overall, though, Open Season doesn’t so much ride on the crest of a wave as comfortably coast.