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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “In Love with Oblivion,” Crystal Stilts

26th December

For the first foreboding minute of “Sycamore Tree,” the opening track of the second LP from Brooklyn-based quintet Crystal Stilts, you might think you’re about to hear a clumsy-but-inspired take on The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth.” Which would be an appropriate place to kick off the festivities on In Love with Oblivion, really, since Brad Hargett and his reverb-muddied baritone sounds like he’s shoveling somewhere deep within himself to unearth his inner Jim Morrison throughout the album.

Kyle Forester’s keyboard clamors in the tortured dark of the song as you wonder if you’re trapped inside some Twilight Zone rerun. Then Andy Adler kicks in with a mean bass line and suddenly the track erupts with chugging percussion straight out of a Sun Records-era Johnny Cash single. Guitarist JB Townsend turns in licks lifted directly from the psychobilly playbook of The Cramps, Hargett enters with a vocal performance that sounds like he’s singing from six-feet under, and the blue-plate special of influences these guys serve throughout Oblivion begins.

And that’s just track one.

Through the Floor” delivers a radiant and similarly lo-fi festival of hand-claps, jangling guitar layered over a stinging solo here and there, and Hargett’s booming voice draped in the chirping echo of background vocals. If Phil Specter wasn’t in jail for killing Lana Clarkson you almost might think he’s the man moving the knobs at the console. As if guiding you on some comprehensive tour of all-things ’60s, Townsend saunters out of the doo-wop era and into Byrds-brand psychedelia on the exceedingly jangly “Silver Sun,” where he sounds like he’s stolen Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and fully intends to keep it for himself.

Along with tracks like “Flying Into the Sun” or “Shake the Shackles,” “Silver Sun” is equal parts Highway 61-era Dylan and Murder Ballads/Let Love In-era Nick Cave as Hargett continues his relentless tribute to Joy Division and The Doors. By the time you make it through the nearly eight-minute-long “Alien Rivers,” the masterpiece of the album and easily among the finest tracks cut by any band all year, you might ask yourself “Why did no one cut this record in 1965?” You encounter the ghosts of many other bands throughout Oblivion, most of them at least as old as your parents–The Ventures, The Box Tops, Velvet Underground, to name a few.

Oblivion actually is the first of two records the Stilts have dropped this year; they released a fascinating EP in November called Radiant Door. There, Hargett shows off his upper register with such aplomb on “Dark Eyes” you wonder why he doesn’t go there more often. If you thought you heard a drowsy interpretation of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” somewhere in Townsend’s guitar work on “Alien Rivers,” Hargett makes “Dark Eyes” sound like it’s Michael Stipe Karaoke Night in your stereo.

A couple tracks later the Stilts turn in a devastating cover of “Still as the Night” by baritone badass Lee Hazelwood, known to you as the dude who wrote “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” for Nancy Sinatra in 1966. Hazelwood died in 2007 at age 78, but Hargett sounds perfectly pleased to carry the legend’s “Cowboy Psychedelia” torch himself. The cover is worth the price of admission alone, and the EP as a whole suggests that the Stilts are far from exhausting the creative vision they explore on their first two LPs.

The frenzy of genres critics contrive to describe the Stilts’ sound is a testament to how intensely the band has listened to the many long-ago groups they worship throughout this LP. From “garage-pop” to “neo-psychedelia” to “psych-pop” to “shoegaze” to the dreaded “post-punk,” a term as overused these days as “psychedelic,” what you end up with here is a band that has gone so far in a direction all their own you need a lexicon to interpret the mumbling and fevered attempts bloggers make at helping people understand what the hell they sound like.

To this blogger they mostly sound like a band called Crystal Stilts, and the wild fun they obviously are having throughout In Love with Oblivion makes it clear that they would have it no other way.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “One Thousand Pictures,” Pete & The Pirates

20th December

You might think you’ve got this Reading, UK quintet figured out from the start when “Can’t Fish,” the opening track on Pete & The Pirates’ sophomore LP One Thousand Pictures, showers you in its theatrical and soaring gush of guitar and percussion. Perhaps you think you hear Band of Horses or even The National somewhere off in the distance of the song, and maybe you do. But when the alternately menacing and supine second track “Cold Black Kitty” mingles the roaring chops of Bloc Party or Interpol with the tender-hearted pop balladry of Ray Davies, the record comes off as a distinctly schizophrenic experience, and the band as one wholly uninterested in settling into any particular mode.

It is only fitting that “Cold Black Kitty” thunders with its driving guitars and pulsing adrenaline. After all, front man Tommy Sanders has just gotten done singing of light bulbs exploding in the streets and people leaping out of their windows on the opening track. Elsewhere, as on standout track “United,” the houses on his block are ugly and “hold meetings in the night time” as they stare him down and laugh. Yes, the houses are laughing. Just go with it.

For a record so replete with hard-bitten themes like violence, suicide and heartbreak, you’d think these tracks are the work of a band that takes themselves entirely too seriously. But then Sanders cracks a joke like “You’re in my heart / you’re in my car as well”  or explores such existential quandaries as “Who needs a train when you’ve got a train track and a motorbike with a girl and the back,” and you find enough emotional wiggle room to laugh off the tough stuff and be glad you withstood it in the meantime.

The video for “Winter 1,” which sports the album’s most memorable beat, exudes the kind of low-budget, geeky greatness of those early-’80s new wave videos we took so seriously at the time but giggle at diffidently today. (Be on the look-out for the wholly ridiculous, glow-in-the-dark-orange ski cap around the 1:20 mark. Glorious.) Check it out above.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “Elephants at the Door,” Dumbo Gets Mad

9th December


Read nearly anything about Elephants at the Door by Dumbo Gets Mad—the nom de plume adopted by a twenty-something kid out of Northern Italy whose dreamy eyes and killer ‘stache bring to mind some younger, hipper understudy of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood—and you almost certainly will come across the following descriptive: psychedelic. Let’s be clear, Elephants at the Door is a terrific record deserving of much of the praise lavished upon it since “Plumy Tale” blew the fuse box of the music blogosphere last year. But to slap it with the “psychedelic” tag both undermines and mischaracterizes its achievement.

The term “psychedelic” is tossed around so frequently these days it’s become about as helpful a way of describing a band’s sound as “indie.” Anyone who has listened to After Bathing at Baxter’s, Skip Spence’s brilliant Oar, or even “Jugband Blues”—the lone Syd Barrett track on Pink Floyd’s 1968 sophomore effort, A Saucerful of Secrets—knows that genuine psychedelia is not something you bob your head to in your Prius on the way to the wheat grass bar. It’s something you hear before shouting “what the #@*% was that?” and looking funny at the friend who played it for you after lighting another roach.

 

Even some of the most deliberate stabs at psychedelia that emerged from the era in which the sound was invented—records likePet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers—still indulge the abandon, whimsy and discord that comprise the fundament of true psychedelia. What we have in Elephants at the Door, on the other hand, is far more calculated than all that. That it nonetheless keeps the listener dazzled for the span of at least eight of its ten tight tracks is an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. Simply put, this is a pop record, and a damned good one. Albeit with elephant noises and a band name taken from the hallucination sequence in the Disney classic Dumbo.

Elephants wastes no time winning you over with its peculiar and warm-hearted charm. Sure, you swear you heard the opening track’s burst of birds and bubbles somewhere on the first MGMT record (Hint: you did). And OK, maybe “Plumy Tale’s” gorgeous organ riff sounds an awful lot like somebody slipped some Ambien into the cocktail that once brought The Caesars’ “Jerk it Out” to an iPod commercial near you. But so what? No record that boasts its influences as abundantly as this one is aiming for originality—and thank God for that, since most records that do are pretty much bound to suck.

Dumbo is not the guy who breaks the ground; he’s the guy who shows up after the ground’s been broken and plants the most amazing daffodils in the cracks left behind. “Ecclectic Prawn” channels Odelay-era Beck while “Why Try” plays like a Portishead track filtered through a Tindersticks song. The ghost of John Bonham haunts several tracks with throbbing drums straight out of “When the Levee Breaks,” and some distinctly Bowie-esque vocals erupt out of the frothing, intergalactic stew that is “Harmony.” With its dueling synthesizers laid over a low-fi feast of jangling guitars and cymbal-heavy drum machine beats, “Harmony” sounds as much at home on a record as it might be in the Labyrinthe Zone of Sonic the Hedgehog.

This is a record for those who stumbled late to the altar of The Flaming Lips upon hearing The Soft Bulletin, music for people who stuck with last year’s Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti record for long enough to recognize its brilliance. Elephants never comes quite as unhinged as either of those records; these songs are composed, tightly packed things that never stray far from their creator’s guiding hand. But Dumbo’s stated affection for Captain Beefheart and his ardent embrace of the “psychedelic” label—however imprecise it may be—suggests that more daring experiments may be on the way. If Elephants is any indication, whatever he comes up with next will be well worth the wait.

Oh, yeah, and you can download the whole thing for free–as long as you promise to Tweet about it first. Check it out here. And if you’re yet to hear the sick “mix tape” Dumbo Gets Mad put out, you owe it to yourself. Check it out over at Anthony Fantano’s blog, The Needle Drop.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “The World Will Follow,” Andi Starr

16th November

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The first time I ever heard of Andi Starr was eight years ago when she emailed to ask if I would review her then-new album Me Beautiful, not because she felt assured that I would lavish it in praise, but specifically because I had just gotten done doing precisely the opposite to Jewel’s horrid 2003 album 0304. If you don’t recall that record, let me first say that I don’t blame you. And now let me remind you that it was the moment in that pop chameleon’s career when she took a stab at passing herself off as some literate Britney Spears, turning in live performances full of trashy clothes and quivering breasts packed into her push-up bra to pair with her stiletto heels and suggestive simper. The music was as substantive as the wardrobe, and the “artist’s” desperation was palpable as she stood at the cliff of her growing irrelevance.

In my review of that album, Starr seemed to have found a scorching critical flame against which to hold her work, and if it turned to ashes in the process, she made it clear that she was perfectly happy to accept that. To her credit, Starr, unlike 99.9% of bands who make their pleas to music bloggers, had actually bothered to read my blog and, even more to her credit, did not bother insisting on her greatness. She was more content to let her music do the talking and allow me to hear what it had to say on my terms, not hers. This was a courage I am yet to find in almost any other band that has emailed me in the eight years since.

The CD ended up in my mailbox days later (Yes, people still sent stuff in the mail back then, and yes, I am one of those prehistoric creatures who still prefers my music in the flesh). I popped the CD into my stereo with the same misgivings I have whenever I listen to music sent to me by a band who wants something from me–that it more likely would bore me than thrill me, that the CD would barely make it past track three before taking its place in my graveyard of albums almost interesting enough to listen to but not really. And that’s when Starr did something else that 99.9% of bands who email me never manage to do–she surprised me.

 

The album stunned me with a spareness and emotional honesty that yielded the kind of songs that call you by your name. At its most vulnerable (desolate tracks like “Elliott” or “Hush”) the album sounded like something recorded outside amid the eerie silence that accompanies the aftermath of a dizzying snowfall, where the ordinary noise of the world–a passing car, a bird–sounds like the only sign of life within a hundred miles of where you stand, but sign enough to get you through the cold night to come. Starr has dropped three EPs and four full-length records since then–this is an artist who works for what she’s after–and in retrospect, releases like the Supergirl EP or the full-length Leaving the White Line sound like blueprints for the fuller, more ambitious production that makes her newest record, The World Will Follow, play like the fruition of more than a decade of labor in the studio.

Starr’s latest disc opens with the wailing and full-bodied sound of the title track as she paints a portrait which, for an artist whose recording career began with the humble accoutrement of an 8-track in her living room, is undoubtedly drawn from personal experience–a dreamer subsisting on Top Ramen, crackers and toast while waiting for the world to catch on. “Do what you love and the world will follow,” Starr sings in a breathy voice as fragile as a spider’s web swinging in a breeze. Throughout the record, Starr’s vocals crack and fade into falsetto one second and boom with a kind of bawling earnestness the next. These songs are the restless tales and prayers of a performer who knows the desire of which she sings in all its depths and detours.

While prior albums for the most part seem committed to a particular mood–the spare atmospherics of Me Beautiful or the jaunty radiance of Supergirl–The World Will Follow roams a broader spectrum of attitudes. Tracks like “Little Bird” or “Ticket-Taker” keep their enthusiasms in check while others like “A Song that Never Dies” or “Happy Ballad” make their nods to a subtle brand of pop that Starr has honed into a sound wholly her own. Starr boasts her influences proudly throughout the record–the discerning listener can hear The Cranberries somewhere off in the distance of “Happy Ballad,” and “Already Gold” flirts with the ghost of Annie Lenox’s “Little Bird.” But Starr does not just pay homage to the bands that made her music possible; she brings some of their apostles to the party herself. Supertramp’s Jesse Seidenberg chimes in with some sweet lap steel here and there, while Jordan Richter, whose production credits include Sixpence None the Richer, lends some synth guitar to the mix.

And just when you think you’ve got Andi Starr figured out, here comes a trippy instrumental in “Water Rising” that keeps you on your guard with its goth-tinged echoes of psychedelia and new-wave. “Water Rising” suggests there may be a hell of a lot more to Andi Starr’s muse than she has let on thus far, and that there may be some fascinating experiments ahead.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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