Bassist and vocalist Shirlé Hale and guitarist David Koslowski may have recently left North Carolina to return to Baltimore, but their band, Free Electric State, remains alive and well. Indeed, if their second LP, Monumental Life, serves as any indication, the Durham-born rock quartet may be doing better than ever before, even if its halves are now separated by a five-hour drive.
Free Electric State's first full-length, Caress, paid homage to '90s indie primacy. It wasn't the kind of ground Free Electric State could have covered twice, not without sounding reductive or redundant. Monumental Life is a tantalizingly different take than Caress. Sure, the influences are again familiar enough—there's a darkened U2 ache to many songs, reminiscent of the early-'90s nightmare disco of Achtung Baby and its neighboring records. But Monumental Life transcends its touchstones ably and naturally. On "All Done Before," a hypnotic, circular riff suggests The Edge, but meaner, funkier and without his oceans of delay. Coupled with a hard-grooving middle section that splits the difference between Neu! and Radiohead, the staccato drumming and three-way harmonies set this standout track apart from flattery. "Better Planes" follows, with a thick, up-tempo "Sweet Dreams"-like swirl.
During the surprisingly slow, haunted and poignant "Mt Dream," Hale sings "Lay down/ lay down your head" with the long-suffering patience of Gone Again-era Patti Smith. This meditation leads into an expected if welcome low-tempo hard-blues swing, which Free Electric State cuts short before "Mt Dream" turns into an excessive onslaught. It's a move not all bands have the self-control to make.
In retrospect, the making of Caress sounds like an exploration of Free Electric State's common influences; it came out well, but it was a tad self-conscious in its deference to references. Dark, engaging and built on infectious rhythms, Monumental Life finally sounds like Free Electric State.