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Though it arrives only a little over a year after the radiant The Power Out, Electrelane's third album Axes is a very different beast than their previous effort. Actually, it's more of a piece with the band's lengthy, improv-based debut, Rock It to the Moon, with keyboard-driven, largely instrumental tracks that often sound like a chamber music group playing forgotten Sonic Youth compositions. Both Rock It to the Moon and Axes show that Electrelane has undeniable talent as an instrumental post-rock band, but the mix of this talent with vocals and pop song structures on The Power Out was so striking that it almost can't help but be disappointing that the band didn't follow that direction on this album, too. To be fair, Axes does have a handful of tracks that expand on what Electrelane did on The Power Out: "The Bells" is a lovely track built on a Krautrock pulse and alternately pounding and rippling pianos and topped with pretty but not overly sweet vocals from Verity Susman and company; its ebb and flow make it one of the band's best pieces yet. "Two for Joy" is equally ecstatic, while "The Partisan" -- a continuation of the dark, driving instrumental "Those Pockets Are People" -- comes close to recapturing The Power Out's freewheeling energy, if not its balance of pop and improvisation. "I Keep Losing Heart," meanwhile, feels like the rural cousin of that album's choral epic, "The Valleys," with its banjo, brass, and massed harmonies. While most of the vocal tracks are fairly solid, the instrumentals are of mixed quality. "If Not Now, When?" is a standout, beginning as a pretty, cheerfully sophisticated piano melody before becoming more and more urgent and finally ending, emphatically, with breaking noises. The tango-inflected "Eight Steps" and "Gone Darker," which pairs a skronky saxophone with train whistles, also work well, but too many of the pieces follow a predictable arc by reaching a peak toward the middle and then tapering off. Then there's the dreadful "Business or Otherwise," a collection of stops and starts that could be seen as an exercise in tension and release, but not a good one. Axes' last track, "Suitcase," salvages the album by mixing the best parts of the band's vocal and instrumental approaches into a glorious, nearly ten-minute finale. Still, there are too many stumbles and missed opportunities to consider the album anything but disappointing. Here's hoping Electrelane's next album has a better balance of the band's different strengths.

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