Axes, the third album from the four-woman Brighton, England group Electrelane, has three distinct sections. The first is quite inspired, the second is mostly interminable, and the third is just inventive enough to rescue the whole venture.
Though produced by Steve Albini in Chicago, Axes remains terribly British while juggling a number of art-rock styles. Things start promisingly as some warm-up freak-out noise gives way to the cool pulse of “Bells.” As the volume rises, pianist/vocalist Verity Susman lets out some inspired, furious pounding and guitarist Mia Clarke responds with repetitious riffs that slash and burn all the same. The group (rounded out by drummer Emma Gaze and bassist Ros Murray) manages some nifty hooks. “Two for Joy,” mining a similar chunk of minimalist melody, closes with some roller-rink organ chords right out of “96 Tears” or “I’m a Believer.”
Things progress steadily — sometimes instrumental, sometimes with Susman’s understated vocals. And then all hell breaks loose on the fifth track, “Eight Steps” — and it’s awesome. Beginning with a nervous racket led by jittery, insistent harmonium lines, the song breaks midway to a contemplative piano part you’d swear you had to learn as a seven-year-old — until the evil first motif returns, even more frenzied. Someone use this song in an art-school horror film, now.
But then the album’s second section begins. “Gone Darker” goes nowhere previous songs haven’t already successfully gone, even with Susman’s game sax squeals. There is an unfortunate string scrapes and aimless clatter — required work if you’re recording in the Windy City, it seems. For a moment, it threatens to turn back into “Eight Steps,” but no such luck.
By the time the album reaches the band’s inspired, almost-punk rendering of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” the worst is over. In the third section, when banjos, horns, choirs and harpsichords vie for attention, Axes works overtime to dismantle any remaining preconceptions. With the closer, “Suitcase,” Electrelane manages its own kind of anthem, in the manner of the choir in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It’s an appropriate final left turn of an album that’s full of them. Thankfully, most connect to places worth visiting.