Two years ago, Eamon Hamilton took a side jaunt from British Sea Power and formed Brakes. Recruiting members from bands Electric Soft Parade and Tenderfoot, Brakes released songs that varied from fiery punk sprints to country twang and everything in between. For those who thought that this `side project’ was but a fleeting memory, you got it all backwards. Not only have Brakes come back for a sophomore release, they’ve come back with an even stronger set of songs, a more cohesive identity, all while creating an album that plays like Frank Black’s iPod on shuffle. Now called brakesbrakesbrakes in the states because of a name dispute, this British band has stepped up their game with more substantial songwriting, broader themes and an even more eclectic array of material.
Openers “Hold Me in the River” and the Bulgakov inspired “Margarita” are charged with a punk spirit that forms a perfect bridge between their fiery debut, Give Blood, and this latest effort. Yet even though there is a similar rambunctious and guitar driven background, these latest songs provide something more than the punctuated hit-and-runs on the former release. These are full-fledged rock songs, merely two of a series of tracks that lead you to the inevitable truth that Brakes are here to stay. The tempo changes with “If I Should Die Tonight,” a country-punk tune that would make everyone from the Mekons to Jay Farrar to David Lowery proud godpapas. Their recording city of Nashville definitely rubbed off in the best way possible.
The regional influence continues in their take on modern time, “Mobile Communication.” The combination of twanging and bending guitar notes and lyrics about the difficulties of contemporary living wouldn’t seem a natural fit, but Brakes pull it off successfully, without a hint of silliness. The same can’t quite be said for “Spring Chicken,” definitely meant to have a humorous bent, in which the band presents a soul / rock / rockabilly tune where they invent a new dance. “Isabel” provides a slow and modest counterpoint, a lone voice and guitar with plaintive lyrics. The title track again changes things up, sounding like a Fountains of Wayne style pop song.
The punk riot returns in “Porcupine or Pineapple,” probably the most aggressive track on the disc, veering between politically pointed, incredibly silly (with the yelps of “youch!” interspersed throughout) and simply outright sinister. “Cease and Desist” is more like the initial two tracks, fierce yet melodious. “On Your Side” finds another side of the Brakes, this one sounding like a Monkees tune. No joke. And yet, either because or despite of this fact, it’s probably one of the best songs on the album. It reminded me of my favorite Nesmith tune, “What Am I Doing Hanging Round?” “No Return,” the last track is also stunning, slow and atmospheric like Sigur Rós gone rootsy. At first a song about a trip to a record store, this track takes a dramatic turn when Hamilton sings, “the pain of being together is more than being alone / the loneliness of walking by your side is more than walking alone / it’s why I’m leaving.” This is the kind of song that comes around maybe once in a career, the kind that hits hard and leaves your hair standing on end.
While some may have thought, with its abbreviated spastic bursts, that Brakes’ first album, Give Blood, was a mere passing fancy for someone who was in British Sea Power (and Electric Soft Parade / Tenderfoot for the other guys), the truth has become evident that Brakes are threatening to rival BSP and could even outlast them. The Beatific Visions is an incredibly cohesive and listenable album for a collection of songs that are so seemingly dissimilar. Instead of playing like a lazy scan through radio presets it instead plays like your favorite mixes, a little of this and a little of that, but always with quality and always with intensity, quiet or otherwise. The Beatific Visions is a huge step forward for Brakes, which may seem surprising since the first album was so damned good.