When I first added Electric Guest to my schedule for this column, the duo was an indie band, and had been since forming in 2011. In the intervening weeks, the two musicians — Asa Taccone and Matthew Compton — signed with Atlantic Records. Somebody thinks they’re doing something right. So, let’s see what all the fuss is about.
The L.A.-based act did not break into the scene to universal acclaim with their first album. Critics complained that their sound on Mondo (2012) was too “corporate.” Nothing annoys certain indie critics like a band that sounds like it could go mainstream at any moment. This attitude always makes me chuckle, since what band doesn’t want the chance to make it big, even if they pride themselves on bucking the establishment?
Electric Guest puts on no such iconoclastic airs. They joyfully blend many types of popular music, from Serge Gainsbourg to the hip-hop collective Souls of Mischief, from Howard Jones to Hall and Oates. And then there’s the ever-present synthesizer – it does rankle the critics so.
In the song “Holes,” from the Mondo album, you get a good sense of the elements at work in this band. Layers of synth, yes, but with syncopated and polyrhythmic patterns that form an interesting texture. This ain’t Flock of Seagulls. Taccone’s voice, some would argue, is too polished for indie. He has a pleasing pop tenor with both a smooth falsetto and dark undertones available when he wants them, and he knows how to shape phrases effectively. (It seems to me that, unlike their female counterparts, male indie singers take unfair heat for strong, clear, in-tune singing, as if it makes them too ordinary and therefore unworthy of the “indie” honorific.)
When they play live, Electric Guest is usually joined by Luke Top on bass and Reese Richardson on keyboards/guitar (Compton is a drummer). The song “Awake” shows the expanded band’s rock chops as well as their impressive polish. There’s a funky meter and tempo change at 3:40, a kind of epilogue you don’t normally hear in pop:
As the first effort of an unknown band, Mondo got so much media attention mainly because its producer was Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, whose session and soundboard credits include work with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gnarls Barkley, and The Black Keys. Reportedly, he challenged Taccone and Compton’s songwriting chops and encouraged them to be innovative. The eight-minute song “Troubleman” is one result.
“Troubleman” is two interconnected story songs, even if their plot is vague. At first it follows the growing up of a girl into a woman in the context of a relationship. Then it switches to the perspective of the man in the relationship. The music is divided into movements, or, more accurately, variations on the main theme. Each part adds new material against the old, changing the overall style from soul to prog rock to experimental electronic, all with a pop underpinning.
In the year following Mondo, Electric Guest released an EP called Good America, which combined some new versions of old cuts plus a couple of new tunes. Among the latter is “The Jerk,” which draws on one of the standard tropes of male-written thinker’s pop (Beck is the obvious model): the self-deprecating love-or-life failure lyric tinged with sardonic humor. More interesting than that tired content is the musical arrangement – fragmented wisps of lyric, reggae-inspired bassline, and overall electronic sound. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come:
The band’s most recent album is 2017’s Plural. If that seems like a long gap between albums, you’re right. Taccone and Compton have revealed in interviews that they had produced a different album some 18 months before Plural. But their label (Downtown/Interscope) found it too serious and dark. That’s a warning sign right there: an indie label that dictates what their artists should release. At that point, the band might as well sign with one of the Big Three (Atlantic is owned by Warner).
And so, Plural is Electric Guest’s final indie album, crafted with a label-appeasing happiness. Taccone and Compton claim to be pleased with the effort, especially the way the tracks rely more on electronica and less on traditional sounds than those on Mondo.
This album is all about keeping those toes tapping. “Glorious Warrior” has a retro-Eighties feel with long notes in the melody held over a frantic synth-drum backdrop of repeating rapid-fire triplets, giving the song a sense of 12/8 time:
Plural even got some Billboard attention: “Oh Devil” peaked at number 43 on the Hot Rock Songs chart. Taccone stays up in falsetto mode while guest reggae artist Devin De Dakta holds down the lower end:
Unsurprisingly, the most popular song on the album is not the best song. It’s not even the best reggae-inspired song. That honor goes to “Zero,” with Taccone’s Mika-like vocal slides into the stratosphere and lyrics about not letting the haters get you down. (Remember the critics I mentioned at the start of this piece? Yeah, those haters.)
Despite the wishes of their label, some seriousness crept into Plural. With its contemporary R&B melody riding on a river of synthesized vocal sounds, “See the Light” is a moving tribute to a drowning soul that still has a chance to be saved. “I’ve seen the light in you before / and I’ll see the light again.”
This song makes me curious about another side of Electric Guest. Even more than I want to hear their first album for Atlantic, I wish I could listen to that suppressed “too dark” album from 2015.