While we're busy having our lousy economy and War on Terror, it's easy to forget that people elsewhere are doing some pretty cool stuff -- you know, uniting Europe, prospering and making great records about it. With their third full-length, Do You Like Rock Music?, English indie-rockers British Sea Power just might have captured that more positive zeitgeist.
Amid walls of echoing shoegaze guitar and sweeping ambience, the new album presents an air of guarded optimism and wry celebration. It's rife with lyrics like "I'll be the first to admit this is a bright but haunted age," "The future's twisted righteousness is coming back around," and the mantra-like chant that opens and closes the disc, "We're all in it, and we close our eyes." Its centerpiece is the staggeringly triumphant "Waving Flags," which blends tremolo guitars and choral sounds with a great hook and lyrics that celebrate the blending of populations and economies under the EU (and that great common ground -- beer).
"It's a welcoming song to immigrants to England, European immigrants, particularly featuring Polish people," says British Sea Power's Yan (a.k.a. Scott Wilkinson). The song was a reaction "against the kind of slightly ignorant nastiness that I was reading in the media," he says. "It wasn't a fair representation of English sentiment to have these ignorant sort of headlines sort of saying 'these people are coming and taking jobs,' and all the same old stories. Looking for people to blame because your house prices are going up or something." Sound familiar?
The main symbol of change the song is built around -- "the Polish Plumber" -- requires a bit of translation for American audiences. English plumbers, Yan explains, were notorious for charging "a fortune to not really fix something very slowly. And then you get these usually quite well-educated people who are taking the first job as a chance to get a foothold, and they're doing it cheaper, and doing a good job and they're polite and nice to you. So that was a kind of joke in England."
Many of British Sea Power's lyrics bear such unpacking, including "No Lucifer." "The song's stockpiled with these references," Yan says, noting obscure comparisons of cherry wood to Kevlar (natural hardness vs. manmade) and an allusion to an English wrestler. "It's about resisting evil in different forms, with a comic undertone," he says, with a laugh. The music video displays the lyrics as subtitles, but you still might feel the need for an encyclopedia by your side.
In fact, for the new album, the band broke out the atlas itself, in search of "a good adventure out of making a record." Parts were recorded in an abandoned English water tower, and some in Montreal in the dead of winter. "We did some recording in a Napoleonic fort on the coast in Cornwall, and then we did all the mixing on the edge of a forest in Prague, in the Czech Republic," Yan notes. "If you're seeing new surroundings, you're a bit more open to being creative. If you're in a kind of repetitive situation in London or something like that, it can get a bit depressing -- that's no good."
The results make a good argument for this globe-trotting approach to recording, as well as being among the best arguments for the continued relevance of the genre in question. Do You Like Rock Music? If it's like British Sea Power's, mark me as an unequivocal "yes."
PGHPOP Festival feat. British Sea Power, The Rosebuds, Jeffrey Lewis, DJs Flash & Finn. 8 p.m. Sun., May 18 (7 p.m. doors). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $12. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com