Echo of the past
You have to give some credit to Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant: In the year when even the Sex Pistols reform to flog the dead horse of punk, they could come back as Echo and the Bunnymen and travel with the nostalgia circus, hammering their past glories into the ears of audiences oblivious to the here and now. Instead, they named themselves Electrafixion and put out Burned, which could have been the sixth Bunnymen album.
McCulloch's pained aesthetic is still intact and so is his knack for writing beautiful, brooding songs that are both painful and sweet, like bruises left by a long-gone lover. Along with Michael Stipe, Morrissey, Matt Johnson, and a handful of others, he has the gift of turning his existential anxiety attacks into magnificent pop songs. He was the one most uncomfortable with the unbearable lightness of "Lips Like Sugar," the Bunnymen's biggest stateside hit.
Ten years later, Burned is McCulloch at his distressed best, and "Sister Pain" suggests that he likes it that way. "Lowdown" rolls with the majestic fluidity that marked the Bunnymen's seminal Ocean Rain, steeped in the melancholy of rain-swept mornings and tattered black-and-white pictures of youth gone by.
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The difference between Electrafixion and its unforgettable predecessor lies in the sonic treatment of the songs. In the past the band relied more on the quiet spaces between notes for its deliciously narcotic appeal. Now Sergeant fills the gaps with layer upon layer of serpentine riffs and elegant distortion effects. The result is sturdier, angrier, and more determined, thanks to fretwork that seems to be in constant maximum overdrive, adding an almost epic dimension to its moodiness.
Sergeant's occasional flirtation with grungy hooks and heavy chords is his way of saying that he can rock with the most contemporary of them; as for the pseudo-dance rhythms of "Zephyr" and "Never" or the semihappy na-na-na-na-na-nah chorus of the latter, they can't disguise the feelings of fear, longing, and restraint that have long been the emotional terrain of their makers. Isn't that where the best pop comes from?
Electrafixion performs June 21 at the Galaxy Club.