Album Reviews

Official Secrets Act – Understanding Electricity

(One Little Indian) UK release date: 30 March 2009


In this day and age it seems almost quaint to read about the latest hyped indie band. Storming out of north London like it was 2005 come Official Secrets Act, a youthful quartet whose debut album Understanding Electricity has already attracted plenty of reviews with the words ‘spiky’ and ‘new wave’ liberally scattered around.

How does an indie pop band fare in the year of the electro-pop vixen? Pretty well in fact, as Understanding Electricity nails its colours to the mast by virtue of old fashioned charm and a damn good tune.

Mainstream opens the album with a blitz of burbling synths and twitchy drums, with vocalist Tom Burke pleading his case to ‘Take me away, back to the mainstream’. It’s one of several lyrical bon mots on Understanding Electricity and indicates that Burke, at least, has more to say than The Futureheads (remember them?).

Lead single So Tomorrow is adroitly placed next in the running order. The hipsters may love lines such as ‘Everything is better with a girlfriend/Who is ten times cooler than you are’, but the song’s heart really lies in Alex MacKenzie’s frantic but razor sharp drumming.

Bass player Lawrence Diamond steps up to the plate on The Girl From The BBC, his low-strung rumbles creating a sinister mood at odds with the hip archness of the song’s title.

Little Birds diverts into moody ballad territory for its opening two minutes, with Burke dropping a register to give one of his most affecting vocal performances. Unfortunately the songs then segues into a rather non-descript mid-tempo shuffle for the rest of its running time.

The indie-by-numbers Hold The Line is another one to skip, but fortunately the quartet gets back on the money with A Head For Herod. Burke may ask ‘Have you grown tired of my big ideas?’, but the slow burn intensity of the musical performance indicates that this is one pop band with a future beyond radio-friendly tunes.

It is almost a disappoint when Momentary Sanctuary cues up next, but the song works well by virtue of mixing a rumbling bassline and electronic violin and monkeying around with the structure halfway through the running time.

Bloodsport is perhaps too Kraftwerk and ’80s electro-pop for its own good and sounds like songwriting by numbers. It’s a trap that many similarly pitched bands fall into too readily, but to Official Secrets Act’s credit they rarely commit the same crime on Understanding Electricity.

Victoria is another one of those sure-fire radio hits that fans of Interpol will love and is the last of the album’s upbeat ‘indie’ tracks. December and Under The Flightpath play the album out with a mixture of sweet harmonies and electronic embellishments. Sure the casual fan will press skip, but any discerning music lover will end up playing these tracks more than the album’s more overtly pop moments.

Spiky and new wave, yes. Dig deeper into this charming album and you will find great musicianship, inventive arrangements, and a natural melodic sense that should stand Official Secrets Act in good stead for the next few years.


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