This is Electron – Electron
In the Disco Biscuits’ often tangled web of side projects, Electron is something of the band’s bastard child. So, it’s only fitting that Electron’s long labored debut release, the live/studio hybrid This is Electron, is the product of a band in flux, rooted in dark livetronica and orphaned emotions.
Initially conceived as a vehicle to showcase bassist Marc Brownstein during his six-month estrangement from the Disco Biscuits in 2000, Electron shifted its direction before its first performance. A month before the group made its debut, Brownstein rejoined the Disco Biscuits rendering Electron another side project attached to a band (now) increasingly known for its extra-curricular activities. Recruiting fellow Disco Biscuit Aron Magner as Electron’s keyboardist, Brownstein went forth with his scheduled performances. Indeed, Electron’s auspicious debut included the first complete performance of Brownstein’s rock opera, the Chemical Warfare Brigade, while his second gig mixed in a handful of new compositions, as well as a stealth set by the Disco Biscuits. But, soon after, Electron seemed to fade into the back corners of Brownstein’s mind.
Over the next few years, Electron fell by the wayside. The majority of the group’s material was quickly integrated into the Disco Biscuits’ repertoire and rearranged. From time to time Brownstein would resurrect Electron for a pickup gig in the northeast with a rotating cast of familiar faces providing accompaniment. Without a permanent lineup or core collection of songs, Electron’s sound seemed to stagnate, loosely defined as a more electronic version of the Disco Biscuits with Brownstein’s bass placed at the forefront.
But during the Disco Biscuits' road hiatus in early 2004, Brownstein decided to setup a birthday gig for himself under the Electron moniker. Recruiting the group’s original lineup, including Magner, drummer Joe Russo and Brothers Past guitarist Tom Hamilton, Brownstein reformed Electron, now several of the livetronica scene’s biggest names.
Recorded, edited, overdubbed and released as This is Electron, Electron’s BB King Blues Club performance peeked into a bizzaro world and hinted at Brownstein’s sound if he never rejoined the Disco Biscuits. With his basslines placed front and center and his lyrics supplying the band’s primary message, Electron is still clearly Brownstein’s vision. Yet his bandmates have become celebrities in the jamband scene and their presence is pronounced. Since Electron’s inception, Russo has found jam-fame with the Duo and shifted his delicate drumming style from electronic jazz to jazzy, instrumental rock, symbolically signing with Ropeadope Records and grounding himself in Brooklyn. Hamilton has also evolved as both a songwriter and vocalist, helping move Brothers Past into the Radiohead corner of the modern-rock community.
Opening with “Rock Candy,” one of Brownstein’s most electronic oriented latter-day Disco Biscuits numbers, This is Electron immediately ties itself to the Disco Biscuits’ world. Essentially a live album, This is Electron has been nipped and tucked in the studio, at times boasting fresh vocals and a clean, computer sound. Refashioning “Rock Candy"’s chorus like a post-modern version of the Chipmunks, Brownstein also finds a unique way to combat criticisms of Electron’s vocals. While Russo is technically a more skilled drummer than Disco Biscuits’ backbone Sam Altman, his touch lacks a certain punch on “Rock Candy,” turning the track into a more melodic number featuring particularly interesting keyboard work from Magner. Brownstein also shines brightly on the elongated jam, one of the disc’s most adventurous workouts.
But, in truth, Hamilton is Electron’s secret weapon. Providing both the album’s most memorable vocals and its indie rock voice, Hamilton interjects a cool urban edge that blends well with Electron’s trance-heavy sound. Finding a kindred spirit in Russo’s inner hipster, Hamilton pushes Brownstein and Magner into new and exciting territory. A left-field cover of Radiohead’s “The Bends,” and a relatively faithful reading of Brothers Past’s “Simple Gift of Man” both fashion Hamilton as Electron’s frontman. While Hamilton has a very different guitar tone than the Biscuits' Jon Gutwillig, his style is no less distinctive and compliments Brownstein’s borderline baritone bass quite naturally.
The album's centerpiece is Brownstein’s most tender composition, “Home Again.” Written for his then girlfriend, now wife, and first performed in Electron’s precursor The Maui Project, “Home Again” has blossomed into one of the Disco Biscuits’ anthems and the closest the group has come to a radio-ready song. Rearranged with Brownstein supplying lead vocals, “Home Again” has evolved into a restrained and beautifully layered composition. It’s easy to forget that This is Electron is essentially a live offering. The album’s production is so neat and its overdubs so smooth that tracks flow like studio compositions. In fact, the live feel only truly comes across during Brownstein’s post-song crowd banter and a few crowd noises used primarily for emphasis.
While This is Electron is only a footnote in the Disco Biscuits’ catalogue, it also stands as one of Brownstein’s best offerings and, perhaps, one of the year’s best live releases. By covering its blemishes in the studio, the Disco Biscuits have figured out a way to capture its live energy on disc, as evidenced by the popular Trance Fusion Radio series. This is Electron finds similar success and goes a step further by actually manipulating the group’s sound. And, by and large these slight changes help establish Electron as a truly more than the sum of its parts.