With Electric Six’s Heartbeats & Brainwaves—the disco-punk-metal’s eighth album in nine years—the Detroit-based sextet may not break any new ground, but therein lays their charm. Arguably the most prolific band in existence right now, singer Dick Valentine and his five cohorts are content to crank out their brand of earnest inanity, and they aren’t all that interested in changing up their formula for broader appeal; one gets the impression their flirtation with the mainstream at the outset of their career was enough for them. They’re something of the indie realm’s equivalent to AC/DC—debauched, innuendo-spewing rockers who refuse to take themselves seriously and whose only concerns seem to be having fun and bringing their fans along for the ride.
That’s not to say the band doesn’t add a little spice to their familiar concoction. For the first time since his debut-album duet with Jack White (I’m sorry, “John S. O’Leary,” *nudge, wink*), Valentine shares lead vocal duties on several tracks. “It Gets Hot” is the band’s first foray into hip-hop, courtesy guest rapper Andy D.’s appearance during the bridge, while “Interchangeable Knife” finds Electric Six at their most experimental, thanks to a reappearance by Andy D. and some childlike female crooning from She Bits (c’mon, it’s not like anyone on an Electric Six record will have anything other than a stage name). The album also finds the band returning to some of its ‘80s electro-synth pop roots, an element downplayed on their last couple of releases. Keyboardist Tait Nucleus? (don’t question the question mark) in particular shines, reaffirming his spot as the band’s unsung hero after having his contributions mitigated of late.
Opener “Psychic Visions” finds Valentine hamming up his best Nick Cave impression over a wall of down-tempo synth lines and drum machine beats, though the foreboding gives way to befuddlement once one starts listening to the lyrics. Truly, Valentine’s trademark coupling of witty wordplay with nonsense to make a successful rhyme is in fine form throughout the album, and the first song adequately sets the stage—“I see her dancing in the Latin quarter/Abbreviations make everything shorter.” It only gets more confounding from there with “Don’t take away my good time drinking problem/Don’t mind my demons when they speak to you” (“I Go Through Phases”) and “Now she’s living on a fiery line/with a fridge filled with French bacon/Mouthing all the words of a famous mime/For which she’s commonly mistaken” (“French Bacon”). The specter of Captain Beefheart looms heavy here, something Valentine directly addresses in “Food Dog,” aping a few of the Captain’s lyrics from “Floppy Boot Stomp.”
The head-scratching charisma Valentine oozes comes down to this prevalent absurdity. He delivers every lyric, no matter how ludicrous, with the utmost authority and conviction. Take “Gridlock!” for example: “Science is just a suspension of belief/A way to explain away the grief/And every policeman needs a chief.” As soon as he’s about to touch on something profound, there comes the jackknife turn to the ridiculous. He’s funny, sure, but in a six-degrees-removed kind of way. Is he funny despite his attempts to be sincere, or vice versa? If it’s a joke he’s singing, he’s not in on it, even though he’s the one who penned it. He exists, nay, thrives, in that thin netherworld between clever and stupid. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he is a genuinely gifted vocalist with quite a range (think of him as a more accessible Mike Patton), though again, his macho-baritone may be one long bit or irony.
The band continues the contradictions that define them, such as the direct subtlety of Valentine’s sex-dripping lyrics in “It Gets Hot,” the intense indifference of “Free Samples,” the self-aware ignorance of “The Intergalactic Version” (“We write the same song over and over again”), and social commentary mixed with decadence in “We Use the Same Products.” With that last one, the question is again raised—are they criticizing consumerism and superficiality, or are they mocking artists who are serious in using rock as a medium for airing their discontent? Regardless, their bread-and-butter catchiness remains intact, evidenced by the wild abandon, sing-along choruses (“Hello!/I seeeee you/Hello!/Therrrrre” and “Free samples/They’re giving shit awaaaayyyy”) and the can’t-help-but-move-to-it grooves.
Of course, with every E6 album, there are duds, something the band probably recognizes as a means of proving nothing is perfect, that everything must have its warts to be authentic. “Bleed For The Artist” and “Eye Contact” are the throw-aways.
Will Heartbeats & Brainwaves win Electric Six any new fans? Nah, probably not, but for those who have stuck by them for years, it is a welcome addition to the band’s repertoire.