Emby Alexander – Behave Like Beehives

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a little over a year since Emby Alexander released their masterful first full length album Frontispiece. A record that was one of my absolute favorites of 2014 and something I still listen to on a near weekly basis. I was a little skeptical when Michael Alexander let me know that they would be releasing their sophomore effort  on June 1st. It seemed a little quick on the heels of Frontispiece, though I certainly admired the ambition and drive. I guess I was worried, for some strange reason that there might be an issue with quality, hell I hadn’t even gotten over their first album and now another one was set for release. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to waiting for a couple years between albums. It turns out that I had nothing to worry about, I needn’t be concerned and I shouldn’t have knowing Alexander’s attention to detail and his quest for perfection. Behaves Like Beehives is every bit the masterpiece that its predecessor was and they have even stepped up their game on this volume of beautiful, neurotic madness.

On this round Emby Alexander is Michael Alexander (vocals, jingle bells, glockenspiel, guitars, piano, organ, percussion, keyboards, samples),  Tim Arimborgo ( guitar, vocals),  Kyle Grabski (electric bass), and  Jeremy Lentz  (drums), as well as a host of guest session musicians and vocalists. Alexander, though, is clearly the one with the artistic vision, the conductor of this chamber pop outfit, leading all the players into a new realm of sound and sophistication. It appears that all of the works of Emby Alexander attempt to trump their previous effort and do so effectively. Here, most notably and noticeably, it is in the composition of the songs and the structure of the album itself, which is a dazzling forty minutes that leaves your head spinning and your soul well nourished. Emby Alexander is easily in my top five local bands and I will happily take a new album every year from them for the rest of my life. I have no doubts that every effort they put their name on will only be of the highest quality. I would not be surprised if they were already mapping out album number three.

The album starts off with a string of samples, random music, sound effects, it’s a dizzying intro that servers to jar the senses, leaving you open to accept whatever awaiting your ears, until Alexander announces that he’s “trusting you to let me down” in a crazed tone of voice that is slightly unnerving. Soon enough a groove is found and it becomes a very danceable tune by the name of “Dance To The Pulse Of The Throbbing Pain.” It is a brilliant number that immediately lets you know that this is going to be a very different beast than Frontispiece, still clearly the Emby Alexander signature sound, but older and clearly armed with some very novel tricks up their sleeve.  It also becomes clear as well that Alexander is composing his songs as if they were pocket symphonies. Nothing is here by accident and it happens to be damn catchy, before dissolving in a cacophony of noise.

The genius just continues in the likeable “Remember Wishing We Was Born Dumb” featuring intricate percussion as always, slightly more casual vocals and a thumping bass line that just kills me. There is so much going in the song that it’s simply intoxicating. I’ve listened to the album countless times now and every time I hear this song, I notice something completely different. The coda to the song is entirely on keys in a mournful tone, which makes sense since it is titled “Born Dead.”  Through its two minutes it is both elegiac and uplifting, shifting between the two seamlessly before dissolving into samples and a wash of noise. “Sleeping While Driving While Violently Dreaming” continues where it left off and builds quickly into a complex tapestry of sound. It is a heaving, driving number with guts to spare, the vocals become instruments to the point that the lyrics are almost lost on you. The song seemingly drowns you in its heavy handed atmosphere and its brilliant every step of the way. It certainly lives up to its title, that’s for sure and some moment border on being downright creepy.

The piano line and strange humming continues straight into “Hearts Over Waves”, bringing you to a hypnotic loop that is actually drowning you. I should mention that this is probably not an album with which you want to drop acid, because of that song transition alone and a lot of other shit going on that may well tip your sanity in the wrong direction. Again, the title infuses the entire song and you wouldn’t be wrong to feel slightly seasick through its execution. It has a seafaring lilt to it that makes you feel like you are actually on a boat, being tossed about by waves. The unpronounceable “URAQTBB” starts the second half of the album with high energy and a return to the signature strained neurotic vocals of Alexander, with the refrain being “Why are you being so shy?” It’s a brilliant tune, just based on orchestration alone, echoing the instrumental experimentation of Brian Wilson during the glorious Pet Sounds/SMiLE era, with sleigh bells and all.

Photo by Jeff Moses

The first single from the album was the title track. “Beehaves Like Beehives” IS the obvious single and it is three minutes of raving, desert driven lunacy that will make your soul soar right along with its ascending chords. It is a racing number that rushes through at a manic pace and while the lyrics are very nearly indiscernible, it doesn’t matter. This song is pure gold and one where both the bass and the guitar line are front and center. It also features the most session players including Cynthia Alexander on cello and vocals from Sam Brodie, Spiros Psihos, and filmmaker Trevvor Riley (who has directed many of Emby Alexander’s brilliant videos). It is a furiously paced bit of bliss and it makes me curious what track they will choose next from this album for a single. “Mount A” follows in its wake and it is one of the more unusual tracks to be found on an album of weird. Once more there are suggestions of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds/SMiLE era, with its sound experimentation and a fierce attention to the minutiae of every single moment.  It fully rocks out in the second half of the track and abandons its initial direction, but as someone who doesn’t usually enjoy instrumentals, I have to say this one is just aces.

“Rain Dance Snowed In” may have the craziest intro of any song on this album before getting to the actual song, which may be something to consider for a single, based on catchiness alone with the chorus and a ton of woo-hoo-ooh-woo-hoo’s involved with its production. It’s also uplifting as all hell and one of the coolest pop tunes of the entire year. Seriously, I can’t get enough of this song, because it is the musical equivalent of sunshine, which is ironic considering its title. What’s it about? I haven’t the foggiest fucking notion. I just know that it’s goddamn brilliant and it rubs my ears the right way. The wistful yearning of the finale “Breaking No One’s Heart But My Own” is viscerally palpable. It is almost suffocating in its mood of hope and loss. Yes, the album ends on a heartwrencher, and yet, it still seems positive somehow. Maybe it’s the chords on the guitar, maybe it’s that it’s the most stripped down of any song here, or maybe it’s how it ends. Most of the song is vocals, acoustic guitar and simple drumming, right until the three minute mark. At that point, the drums build to a crescendo and the most fantastic electric guitar solo starts–I mean it sounds like it was taken out of a Southern fried rock classic from the 1970s and in its last moments, Behaves Like Beehives totally rocks out. It is a complete surprise and it makes me smile every time, because it is so unexpected, it’s like Clapton shows up for thirty seconds to bless the record with his presence. When I first heard it I said out loud, “Please, for fucks sake, let this be how the album ends.” And it did. And it was good.

In my estimation Emby Alexander are two for two on masterpieces. While this album may not be as accessible as Frontispiece, from a production sense, a composition sense, an orchestration sense, it is in another dimension. I suppose what I may like best about the chamber pop/art rock that Emby Alexander presents is that it is artistic, supremely so, it is the audio equivalent of staring at a Jackson Pollock, a Van Gogh, Picasso or Monet. This is art, driven by the vision and ear of Michael Alexander, who is one of the rare composers in this town that I consider to be an actual genius. He creates vital, timeless records and continually strives for new heights–not for success or fame, he’s running a race against himself and he’s constantly winning. I admire that in no uncertain terms. Emby Alexander may not be the most popular band in this city, but I have to say, they are possibly the best. Behaves Like Beehives will be in heavy rotation with me until their next album comes out, which I can only assume will far surpass this one, just from their current track record alone. Brilliant–every single moment is goddamned brilliant.

Be sure to check out Emby Alexander this Saturday, August 1st, at The Rebel Lounge as they play with such esteemed company as Brick + Mortar and another one of my local faves Twin Ponies. I’ve seen both Emby Alexander and Twin Ponies absolutely rip it up at The Rebel Lounge and I assure you that this will be a magnificent time to be had by all. Also, The Rebel Lounge is currently one of my current favorite and frequent hangouts for great music, drinks and debauchery.  I urge you to attend this show. Just take a listen to the new album below and you will have no reason not to go.