Friday, July 15, 2005

Review: Brakes - Give Blood

As much as they’ve been heralded as one, Brakes are not a supergroup. I looked this up, and there was no mention of them anywhere amongst the company of other genuine supergroups. Listed were Audioslave, CSNY, Cream, The Faces, Mike & The Mechanics, and the mighty Velvet Revolver, but no Brakes. Love the hype-mongering press, eh?

A side-project of British Sea Power’s Eamon Hamilton, along with Tom and Alex White of Electric Soft Parade, and Marc Beatty of The Tenderfoot, Brakes aren’t terribly bad; they just aren’t terribly great either. Of course, I will admit to being a big fan of British Sea Power’s first album, which set my expectations high.

I put off writing this for a couple weeks because I was trying to give the album enough time to make an impact and grow on me. Being less than 30 minutes in length, it comes across as a spastic affair of psych-country freak-outs, art-pop irony and self-aware lyricism – a description which actually sounds pretty good, but in practice here, seems to lack sincerity. With a couple singles already released since 2004, the band has been on a slow boil -- the guys getting together for gigs on-and-off when their primary projects have allowed. They have a cult following already, and are poised to gain at least some popular success.

Unfortunately, the songs about being drunk in New York, dancing in clubs, doing coke, and getting “high to forget,” fall flat. It’s the stripped down, cleaner tracks like “You’re So Pretty,” which stand out amongst the mess – sounding something like Pavement meets '60s psych. The throw away sub-30-second interludes are just that. They add very little to the cohesiveness of the record. Sure the whole thing was recorded live to tape, and yeah they might be trying to capture the feel of their in-studio chemistry, but it simply doesn’t work in this recorded context.

There are two covers here – Johnny Cash via Duke Spirit’s “Jackson,” which makes me smile simply because this rendition sounds so ridiculous coming from these guys, and an attempt to capture the brilliance of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sometimes Always.” Without Hope Sandoval, and with subtle (but ultimately damaging) changes to the lyrics and construction, it fails to convey the pop hook of the original.

The well-done cartoon video for the very right-now “All Night Disco Party” might well afford the band some airtime, and give their sets a Modest Mouse dance disco crowd pleaser, but the lack of substance is going to help it fade pretty quick. “Pick Up The Phone” is cute in a Violent Femmes on crack kind of way, and it takes some balls – or a sense of humour - to release a 30 second song as a single. But novelty is novelty and it doesn’t last, which seems to be the underlying problem here; this is a scattered album which relies heavily on quirk and humor… but lacks the wit to pull it off.

As bad as this sounds so far, Brakes are not without merit. The aforementioned “You’re So Pretty,” along with “Fell In Love With A Girl,” “I Can’t Stand To Stand Beside You,” and “The Most Fun,” while not singles material, are engaging tunes. Indeed, it’s in their attempt to write the hits where the album loses itself. The grating “Heard About Your Band,” an Art Brut-esque diatribe on music industry name-droppers, is itself filled with some wickedly obvious self-referential statements. We know OK? And Art Brut does it better.

Perhaps as these guys continue to work together, they will give us something that appears to be more than what this is – a half-time side-project realized over a couple pints. In the meantime, Rough Trade will make a few dollars, a couple choruses will be sung at the bar, and some sad fuck who name-dropped Sleater Kinney and Karen O will be immortalized in relative obscurity.