In Parts and Labor’s Receivers, some of the electro-quirkiness that defines their sound has been replaced by a more standard sense of rock ’n’ roll instrumentation and dynamics. Verse-chorus-verse structures with guitar parts, danceable percussion, and sing-along melodies ground each song. Sarah Lipstate’s guitar adds traction to a band that always seemed ready to disappear in wire buzz or radio static.
Still, the new mix does not amount to a trade-in of their weird-science brain for a rocking pelvis. These “pop” gestures work in tandem with a new epic, expansive mentality. The band members are not just in a singing mood; they are in political-rally mode, and so the choruses are humongous.
“The Ceasing Now” is the case in point. About three-quarters through this seven-minute epic, everyone (it seems like everyone in the world) starts singing: “Surviving the close calls/While we’re always revising our roles/Seizing the ceasing now/As our aims miss our goals/We size up our downfalls/While we undress the pessimist’s pose/Our tattered yeses and nos/It only matters that we chose.” Like most of the lyrics on the album, they are not directly political but reference political discourse, as if they’ve taken the language and mixed it up into separate chunks of singability. “Mount Misery” (a reference to Donald Rumsfeld’s home and, less topically, the supposed birthplace of the Jersey devil in the pine barrens of New Jersey) sees this same language game played over sweetly arpeggiating guitar parts and an unbroken melodic line from something that sounds like a crazed theremin.
Of course, the transformation of their electronic noise into something more “populist” is not just a matter of danceability, singability and political rhetoric. They also let the masses have a part in making the album. Last spring, the band made an open call to fans for sound samples, and they have used every contribution they received (hence they are “receivers”?) on the album. This semi-collective sound-making only adds to the expansiveness of the band’s gestures. The ending of opening rocker and “Satellites” is a good example. The song is a rocker through and through, but at its end, a few choruses of hippie harmonies come in and then give way to a raucous psychedelic freak-out –made up of many of these outside fan-based contributions.
Psychedelic is a word thrown about too often as a reference to anything weird and complex, but this actually works like old-school psychedelia: Churning swirls of sound that make you wonder where you are and what you’re hearing. The difference, though, is that this collective, anarchic art-making is not just a gesture inward (i.e., “turn on, tune in, drop out”) but outward, toward the confusions of other people, toward the dissonance of living together.
The sounds have a dirty, noisy sharpness to them that we don’t hear in old-fashioned psychedelia. That’s because these sounds aren’t about the image of a community of instantaneous revolutionary happiness; instead, they transform the idea of community into something that takes work (like a song or a record), that is a real thing we have to deal with and change as we can, and that is at times darker and stranger than we can know. That’s definitely more 2008 than 1968.