Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Powerman 5000: Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere (redux)

Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere has its feet planted akimbo, with one in metal and the other in pop. If you need a reminder that the rules for rock have changed in the 21st century look no further than the utter lack of shame in this dichotomy. And that’s a good thing, in case you were wondering.

Released last fall, it’s easy to peg the latest album from Powerman 5000 as a callback to its most commercially successful album, Tonight the Stars Revolt. But that shit would only be true if you’re one of those people who don’t pay much attention to the stuff going into your earholes. “Hey, it’s Powerman 5000 and they’ve got songs about space stuff! That makes it the same!”

While it’s true that the fantastic rears its ugly head in full force on Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere, it’s got little to do with any of PM5K’s previous albums beyond the fact that frontman Spider is one of those rare guys who can learn from both his successes and failures. Anyone familiar with the band’s entire catalog can see these strengths at play here, but if you’ve only heard Tonight the Stars Revolt … well, I feel a little sorry for you.

But that doesn’t mean I arrived at this album with an open mind. Some of my initial resistance to this album has had to do with a little cognitive dissonance on my own part. My gut response to the song V is for Vampire was based on my growing hatred of vampires. I think my taste for vampires ended with the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and the Twilight series has quickly turned distaste into outright nausea. I hear the word “vampire” these days and the first thing I think about are teenage goths shopping for spiky belts and black lipstick at Hot Topic.

While I’m still not wild about that particular song, I remembered A is for Apathy from the Transform album and wondered how long it will take for Spider to record a song for every letter in the alphabet. Not only would an alphabet-themed concept album be the height of geek chic, it would give PM5K an excuse to cover C is for Cookie — which would be amazing. And I’m not even joking a little bit.

What Spider’s got going for him is an understanding of both rock and science fiction history. Part of me wishes he’d pull from that bag of tricks a little more often and hit that ComicCon attitude with a lot more ferocity. But lyrically and musically it’s hard to argue with his aesthetic choices. The song Supervillain hits all the right beats without resorting to excessive namedropping (which is something that even mc chris has been pulling away from in recent years) while Do Your Thing plays like the kind of song the patrons of the "creature cantina" in Star Wars might listen to.

Show Me What You Got is a gut punch that suffers a little by its proximity to Supervillain. I like the latter so much that I’ve had a bad habit of skipping over the first few tracks just to get to it. I’ve also had a little trouble accessing Time Bomb because I’ve tended to step backward to the preceding title track a little too often.

What I didn’t immediately notice when first listening to the album was the level of electronica layered into the songs. PM5K has had one of the more fascinating identity crises in rock and roll during the last 15 years, so it’s easy to take their frequent changes in direction for granted (which is kind of a shitty thing to do to a band, but it happens.)

Bits of the electronic ambience is intentionally obtuse and, I suspect, intentionally calls back to failed experimental music of the 1970s. But Spider uses these kinds of effects as seasoning and doesn’t rely on them for more than a few seconds at a time. The spine of a vital rock band branches throughout every track on this album regardless of the weird territory it sometimes explores. You can even hear elements of Devo and Daft Punk creeping in around the edges but PM5K takes these elements to places those bands have never gone, for better or worse.

At a little over 30 minutes in length, Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere might appear to fall on the wrong side of the American Tradition (tm) of “bigger is better.” But I prefer a well-edited album to the kind of bloated messes produced by artists who confuse their own ambition for talent (Note to Billy Corgan: you’re a remarkable song writer, but not everything you record is a gem.) Very few albums need to be 72 minutes long or spill out over two discs.

In fact, some of the best rock albums ever recorded hit that 35-minute sweet spot and quit while they’re ahead: Funhouse by The Stooges; Tyranny and Mutation by Blue Oyster Cult; Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned; pretty much everything recorded by The Minutemen. So when every track is strong, shorter is always better.

So don’t be an asshole. Go buy Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere right now.


After that, keep up with Spider at his blog Rockets and Robots. He's currently soliciting ideas for cover songs for Powerman 5000. My suggestion: Magneto and Titanium Man by Paul McCartney.

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