For a band so bluntly named, The Extraordinaires’ third full-length release relies heavily on suggestion. It never tells you outright that the character from lead-off track “The Man in the Suit” is the notorious Nikola Tesla, or that you’re supposed to bear him in mind when singer Jay Purdy croons about Christopher Columbus’ egg-balancing theatrics. Instead, Electric and Benevolent allows you the pleasure of making your own connections, to imagine that you are stringing together the components of your own integrated circuit and thus to revel in a little bit of the genius that possessed Tesla himself.
Character studies: The Extraordinaires dig into Tesla, Columbus and a few other historical beasts on Electric and Benevolent.
The Philadelphia quartet (featuring members of former Charlottesville act Ted Stryker’s Drinking Problem) sketches the inventor’s life and times with an energy, eclecticism and Roger Rabbit whimsy that sounds and smells like Fashion Nugget-era Cake with generous proportions of Neutral Milk Hotel thrown into the batter. That’s the foremost impression, at least: fast, swaggering pop-punk with a semi-inebriated drawl that bends occasionally, but never obnoxiously, towards ska. Then you’ll notice how much territory Purdy’s voice covers—easing into a balladesque, Kevin Barnes-y mode on the twangy “Eloise the Eloquent,” only to fly spontaneously into squawking Mike Patton-style falsetto on “The Egg of Columbus.” This latter track, the sixth, features the high water mark of the album, a merry-go-round bridge sporting a catchy, proverbial hook: “New ideas/ Aren’t always greeted with an open ear/ But then as soon as it’s an old idea/ Everybody loves a pioneer!” Faster and faster it cycles, in the process becoming one of the rollicking-est drinking game ditties since The Beatles’ “All Together Now.” A lean, snappy ode to vision, invention, and the entrepreneurial spirit, “Columbus” is the album’s rotary core, the coil around which the remainder spins.
It might not be until your third listen, however, that you start to assemble Electric and Benevolent’s constituent vignettes into what happens to be a mighty engine, a narrative of staggering ambition with the spirit, if not the scope, of Sufjan Stevens’ Come On, Feel the Illinoise. “Ellis Island” is six minutes of superb historical tourism, describing a young, penniless Tesla’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1887: “Out in open water in a birth I couldn’t bear/ Huddled down in storage with a pen and time to spare/ We arrived one foggy morning/ And liberty greeted us there.” Cue heavenly rays of light, a chorus of glorious ahhs. Reverent, disarmingly sincere, but never quite serious.
And that’s a good thing. History made a tragedy of Tesla’s life, but Electric and Benevolent both mythologizes and personalizes it with the vibrancy and vitality of an alternating current. It whirls, it gyrates, but the center holds.