Thursday, February 28, 2008

KQED Music: British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

Listening to British Sea Power's new album Do You Like Rock Music? is a frustrating experience. Not because it's rubbish (it's actually very good, and the band's best yet) but because it gives the impression it would sound even better live.

For all the great technological advances, leaps, and bounds currently shaking the music industry, the live experience has remained important and popular. Because, no matter how clever widgets such as MP3s and internet streaming are, the best way to really rate an artist is still to see them in the flesh.

For example, I'm much more likely to feel favourably towards a band I've seen rearrange the essential matter of the universe on stage, but who can't quite bottle that alchemy on record, than one who produces a breathtaking album they can't reproduce live.

This isn't an absolute rule, of course, particularly as some types of music are much easier to play live than others. However, seeing a band live is also important as it allows me to gauge one of the essential measures of whether I truly love any particular act: how seriously they take themselves.

Consider the example of my brief, starcrossed love affair with the British dance act Faithless. When I first heard them, I thought they were AWESOME. They took all the cheesiest, silliest, most overblown bits of modern dance music, and combined them into a fantastic festival of fromage-flavored fun. It was hands-in-the-air silly, and I loved it.

That was, until I saw them live. As soon as they started playing, I came to a horrifying realization: This wasn't a knowing, clever pastiche. They actually meant it. Not only that, but they were incredibly, deadly serious. Rarely have I seen a more joyless band on stage, before or since.

English eccentrics British Sea Power could so easily have fallen into a similar pothole. Many of their anthemic indie peers certainly seem to have (consider the dreary dirges of Embrace, Snow Patrol, and so on). Instead, BSP produce rousing music that comes armed with a much-needed injection of levity.

Famous for playing on stages festooned with foliage and dressing like the paramilitary wing of the Boy Scout movement circa 1940, their new album contains many signs that they are fully aware of life's absurdities. For example, "Waving Flags" is a song about immigration with an unlikely focus: "You are astronomical / fans of alcohol / so welcome in." Meanwhile, "Atom" doesn't just mention the phrase "caveat emptor" but makes it the wickedly catchy chorus of a song about, er, nuclear physics. And the chant of "easy, easy" in "No Lucifer" is in homage to a hero of British Wrestling.

The paradox in this case is that, with such firmly frivolous credentials on record, the onus is going to be on BSP to prove they can seriously rock live. And there's only one way to find THAT out...

British Sea Power play Bottom of the Hill as part of Noise Pop on March 1, 2008. Tickets are available at the door only. 'Do You Like Rock Music?' is out now on Rough Trade/World's Fair.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.