Heartbreak, shame, sorrow and guilt. In the case of Archie Powell, his new collection of songs prove that for him, no good crush gets requited. He and the Exports present Back in Black, an explosive set that marries the melodic, hooky addiction of their previous albums with a new heavier, noisy backing. Powell notes that the political songs on their critically acclaimed “Great Ideas in Action” got a lot of attention, but he felt that the more inwardly centered songs held up just as well. “I felt that the real strength of our body of work was with internal subject matter. Writing this album, I wanted to be bluntly transparent about sex and romance. I was really looking to be nakedly honest despite any discomfort or personal embarrassment it would invariably cause.”
With a desire to capture sound and spirit of their high-energy live show, the band set out for Chrome Attic with producer and like-minded soundsmith Jonathan Alvin (Santah, Surfer Blood), a soul brother with the chops and innovative outlook to help them realize their vision. Keen pop sensibility with harsh noise soundscapes compliment one another and lend a cohesiveness to a set of tunes that are otherwise markedly dissimilar.
Thematically, the lyrics speak of heartbreak, longing and infatuation - they are presented in a sonically dischordant way, creating a musical dichotomy that breathes fresh air into a time honored rock n’ roll tradition. “I’m always looking for a twist, to make things musically interesting for myself” explains Powell, “I ditched any songs that seemed too pat, too easy, and focused on the ones that had a creepy feeling on the first listen, then became more relatable as you dig in. Conversely, I've also always loved the happy sounding pop songs that have weird, depraved subject matter. It's the same kind of rub.” The album has a lot of texture and depth, listening at low volume presents a very different experience from blasting it on high.
"Holes" takes about two and a half minutes to illustrate the ebb, flow, and irreversible rise and release of tension that most mismatched relationships take years to see through. Seemingly turned up to ten from the outset, the tune somehow continues to expand to vast spaces with dreamy guitar licks, buzz-saw synths and an infectious call from Powell for the applicable party to help him "re-organize, re-organize". Clearly unheeded, the tune reaches its inevitable climax only to have the rug pulled out from underneath on a dime, forcing the listener to literally "snap out of it".
A true pop pastiche of long-reaching array, "Tattoo On My Brain" feels like five songs at once while ultimately retaining the glue of a smart lyric and melody to hold it all together. Phil Spector, Dick Dale, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Clash are all at the same party, and we're not sure if the host is Elvis Costello or Frank Black for all the syrupy hooks and ghastly noise served in equal proportion.
Of all the songs on the record, "I'm Gonna Lose It" feels most quintessential. As much sweet and earnest as it is desperate and sexually repressed, the frustration of the lead character cuts through the mix clearest of all. With sentiments such as "I've got a feeling that you were never quite impressed / I guess it's not appealing to hear me say I loved you best" butting up against their more vulgar counterparts ("But now I'll never press you and tell you jokes or send you texts / Let alone undress you and bite your tongue or touch your breast"), the dynamic for the entire record is deftly summarized. And all the doo wop vocals certainly don't hurt.
Archie Powell is the son of a violin prodigy who played in the Chicago Symphany Orchestra before landing as a permanent member of Milwaukee’s orchestra. He started playing guitar at 11 and writing “awful” songs at around 15. Immediately following college, he and keyboardist Ryan started the Exports, bassist Adam joined after they recorded their first EP and they rounded out the permanent line-up with drummer RJ. The band’s first recorded effort was a digital freebie called the Loose Change EP that expanded their audience to a national level. It was followed by Skip Work, their debut full length, which drew praise from Boston Phoenix, Powerpopaholic and My Old Kentucky Blog among others. Great Ideas in Action followed in 2012, and critics from Esquire, Billboard and NPR’s World Café were impressed.