For Humdrum's latest EP, the band booked time with Steve Albini in his Chicago-based Electrical Audio studio. This fact alone could overwhelm the conversation about the record, but Albini is a famously egalitarian and workmanlike producer. If you book time with him and get on the studio calendar, he'll record your stuff. So his name is less a stamp of approval from one of rock's most famous producers and personalities and more a comment on Humdrum's willingness to throw a good amount of time and money at this project. (To further the EP's analog pedigree, it was mixed at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio and mastered to stereo tape.) I haven't heard the vinyl version of We Are Electricity, but even the mp3 versions show a more mature use of space and a focus on a few key tones for a band that has previously suffered from a little bit of sonic A.D.D.
On these five tracks, the guitars are left clean and reverberant while a carol of the bells fills in a lot of the high end: Rhodes electric piano dominates, along with glockenspiel and vibraphone. Such instrumentation lends an airy, occasionally dreamy feel to the EP, which is an ideal setting for Paul Maguire's vocals. His high, languid tenor voice is able to transmit these songs above the increasingly complicated instrumentation and changing tempos. Only on "Electric Dice" does he commit to the herky-jerky motions of the tune; otherwise he floats along, unmoored but not aloof.
I've long admired Humdrum for its rhythmic dexterity — Mic Boshans enlivens the electro pulses as Née's beatkeeper but he sounds more at home in Humdrum. On a song like "Electric Dice," he sets the timer and then branches into fills and filigrees, including an impressive rhythmic shift near the end. Boshans is able to treat his kit like a lead instrument without coming off as a soloist or a Keith Moon acolyte. (See the band's video performance of "I'll Find You" for last year's Lo-Fi Cherokee sessions to witness this concept in action.) "Vanish" is as close to disco as we've heard Humdrum get, though Andy Benn's psychedelic organ solo owes no small debt to the recently departed Ray Manzarek. Benn stands out as the band's secret weapon this time around. He knows when to get complicated and when to hang back; few keyboardists straddle that divide this well. His performances are an object lesson on why We Are Electricity is Humdrum's best release by a mile — the band knows better now when to turn up the quirk factor and when to lay out and let the song breathe. All the big-name producers and analog fetishization wouldn't matter without that discipline.