Consumer Electronics – Dollhouse Songs LP Harbinger Sound 2015
Returning relatively quickly with a new album following 2014’s ‘Estuary English’ (reviewed here), the reactivated Consumer Electronics (based around Phillip Best, his wife Sarah Best and Russell Haswell) continue on their newly forged and rather contentious path. From a visual standpoint the Trevor Brown artwork of the cover immediately provides an obvious nod to Phillip’s former days in Whitehouse, and while not a bad cover by any stretch, personally I would have much preferred to see Phillip’s own collage work (as was the case with ‘Estuary English’), rather than one which harks back to Phillip’s past. On the lyrical front ‘Dollhouse Songs’ delivers another spite, disdain and anger fueled rant at the contemporary UK political landscape, coupled with selected tracks taking a cutting analysis of anxieties and neurosis relating to perceptions of self-worth.
‘History of Sleepwalking’ introduces the album with revving synths, arrhythmic beat and whispered vocals of Phillip, before machine-gun snare drum and ranted/ unhinged vocals split through the speakers (…an excellent start). The following track ‘Knives Cut’ then goes for the jugular with its high pitch digital noise squall and underscored with focused synth drones and blasting, overblown mid ranged bass, while Phillip’s vocals show some variation given the sardonic spoken style. With the noted lack of lead vocals from Sarah on ‘Estuary English’, this is rectified here, where she proves herself a worthy lead vocalist on ‘Condition of a Hole’. Musically this track is built around a thumping mid paced ‘beat’, higher fluttering percussive elements, and distortion elements which swoop in and out of the sonic frame. Sarah then pulls no punches with a fierce lyrical attack and demonstrates she is a commendable vocalist who can hold her own (…particularly as the vocals are fully intelligible). Some respite comes on the instrumental track ‘Nothing Natural’, featuring an undercurrent of pulsing/ shimmering synths, over which splitting digital noise shards cut and slash across sonic landscape. After originally being featured on a split 7” ep with the Sleaford Mods, ‘Murder Your Masters’ is included here (…another alternate ‘ambient’ version with Phillip on vocals was also included on the ‘Repetition Reinforcement’ 12’ep), where Sarah again takes the vocal lead. Musically this is the specific track which when previously performed live raised accusations that Consumer Electronics had gone ‘techno’, but with its squelching beat (which in truth is more of a saturated pulse), hardly constitutes a form of techno any self respecting ‘techno’ fan would be associated with. Regardless, this ‘beat’ coupled with a minimalist underscoring drone, where Sarah’s vocals are front and centre and increase the anger of her earlier lead vocals, with her voice pushed to the point of breaking. That said, one minor observation is that she commences with a focused and vindictive rant, by track’s end it does sound if she is slightly running out of steam to maintain the early intensity (…but may also be indicative of the vocals being recorded on a single take?). ‘The Push’ brings another track constructed with programmed ‘scattergun’ kick and snare percussion and squelching digital mayhem, as Phillip delivers another lucidly focused vocal barrage, ranting on the drive of politicians and bankers to sure up positions of power and profit gain at the expense of all (…rather diverged element then appears at track’s end, where it reverts to a poetic almost ‘beatnik’ spoken word section). For the final track ‘Colour Climax’, which although not the most sonically over the top, is thematically the most harrowing piece, with its (in part) scalpel sharp analysis of the process of aging in the face of ailing health. On this track Phillip’s vocals are spoken and understated throughout, placed high in the mix, atop a landscape of subdued bass rumble and fluttering digitized noise, where the lyrical content carves veins of sadness and (angered) resignation. Given such sentiments are not what would necessarily ever expect from a Consumer Electronics records, it still completely works in its spoken word capacity and in context of the balance of the album.
With 7 tracks and 35 minute playtime ‘Dollhouse Songs’ is a longer album than its predecessor, where the tracks are noted to be (relatively) structured and condensed into pieces of around 4 to 5 minutes. Musically speaking, whilst not hugely divergent ‘Dollhouse Songs’ does feel to be a more holistically focused album than ‘Estuary English’ (…noting that the later could be considered a 22 minute collection of punishing tracks). Yet equally ‘Dollhouse Songs’ and ‘Estuary English’ very much feel as being companion albums, particularly as the sound on both is equally harsh and digitally crystalline. What this all ultimately means is, if you hated ‘Estuary English’ you simply won’t find anything to like here. But if like me you found ‘Estuary English’ to contain some new ideas and approaches for Consumer Electronics, ‘Dollhouse Songs’ continues with this trajectory and from these quarters, it is another album I have hugely enjoyed over a significant number of repeat listens.