Music Reviews

posted: May 2, 2014

Archie Powell & The Exports Latest Back In Black

Team Cool LP or CD
Archie Powell & The Exports Latest

Archie Powell doesn’t have an easy go with relationships on he and the Exports’ terrific Back In Black. Candid, funny, and disarmingly personal, the Milwaukee quintet’s third album serves a vital compendium of frustrations, repressions, infatuations, and decisions associated with dating in the 21st century.

Darker, heavier, and noisier than the group’s preceding efforts, it juxtaposes unforced wit and black humor with catchy power-pop hooks and sticky, lick-the-beater melodies.

While self-deprecation and obsession have long occupied a special place in rock n’ roll, Powell’s intimacy and earnestness with such characteristics—and their depraved offshoots—grant the songs relatable familiarity and believability often missing from heartbreak- and longing-themed works. Akin to fellow Midwestern singer/songwriter Ike Reilly and a younger Rivers Cuomo, Powell isn’t afraid to embarrass himself via private disclosures or risk being seen as a stalker due to frank confessions related to sex, and generally, him not having it.

A casual dude that looks like he’d be comfortable popping the top off a Budweiser and handing it to you on a beer-stained couch, Powell is worlds removed from the self-obsessed rock star, ego-tripping pop diva, and material-obsessed hip-hop persona whose music distorts reality with unattainable fantasy. He and his cohorts are also refreshingly free of hipster trappings—well, save, possibly, for the beards. They avoid suggestions of indie elitism or insider pretension; at no point does artsy temptation trump good, old-fashioned guitar-drums-bass explosiveness. Back In Black may not create a new language for romantic exasperation and sexual tension, but it freshens and twists existing vocabularies in clever ways.

Throughout, Powell gives the impression of someone who spends more than his share of time scouring the likes of OKCupid, Match, and local bars for the perfect girl. It’s a character type anyone in their 20s, 30s, and 40s knows well. He misreads signs, pines after wrong women, and can’t break free of fixations. Many of his first dates devolve into sad, weird affairs. On occasion, he’s managed to land a few follow-up dates, but never gets the prize, and often, settles for imagining desired-for outcomes while dealing with letdowns and breakups. The recurrent cycle prompts him to question himself, repress anger, drink heavily, resort to desperate of measures, and, due to his yearning, do it all over again.

Powell’s frazzled mental state comes into focus seconds into the album. “I wish someone could make this masturbation obsolete/But baby if it’s not you/I guess I’d rather tug,” he cries on the high-strung, high-velocity “Everything’s Fucked.” Before the song crashes headfirst over the finish line, he’s spurned on the phone, convinced he’ll never move past his objet d’affection, and wishes her memory would be assassinated by a bullet. His fortunes don’t improve.

On the low-key “Electrocute My Heart,” Powell sways to dream-pop treble notes and springy percussion, the sensuality attached to his sad-eyed-puppy-dog pleas ceding to bizarre relief when, during the climax, he seizes, burns, and fries from the shock treatment he requests from his sought-after mate. “Holes” is similarly detrimental to his physical being, his bandmates riding cheerleading beats and in-the-red glam riffs to a conclusion that witnesses Powell go from optimistic to urgent. The irresistible “I’m Gonna Lose It” spills over with chiming chords, a strolling pace, backing wordless doo-wop vocals, and a litany of sweetly voiced confessional zingers. “But now I’ll never press you/And tell you jokes/Or send you texts,” Powell laments, slipping into precarious territory while craving sex so badly he can’t help but proclaim his lust: “Let alone undress you/And bite your tongue/Or touch your breast.”

Throwing himself into the song until his reddening throat gets scraped raw, Powell also loses control on “Mambo No. 9,” a 94-second blast of guerilla punk played at scorched-earth tempos and to-hell-with-everything abandon. The Exports’ inner Doolittle-era Pixies also surfaces on the grinding “Lean,” where caustic dancefloor grooves and rah-rah beats eventually surrender to Powell’s disturbed screams and a sympathetic hook that comes on like a surprise haymaker punch.

By all indications, Powell needs rehab—or at least a good therapist—before Back In Black hits the halfway mark. He never appears to obtain either option, but on the distortion-laden “Jump off a Bridge,” his deadpan delivery projects a healthy ire at love interests that on deceptively spry tracks such as “Tattoo On My Brain” cause him to require medical attention. Powell also gains the upper hand on the minimalist ballad “Rodeo Crush,” his echoing words eviscerating an ex while a solitary piano and atmospheric strings float in the background.

The balance of musical chill-outs and blowouts all lead up to “Everything’s Cool,” a closing kiss-off track on which saloon piano lines and Powell’s calm demeanor function as assurances that the turmoil is behind him and he’s ready to move on, hatchet buried. It’s the only time on the record Powell seemingly doesn’t want us to believe him. Like everyone else that’s been through the dating ringer, dealt with crazed exes, and amassed emotional baggage, he understands we can see right through his protective sardonic veil.

–Bob Gendron