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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 2010 Series: “Crazy for You,” Best Coast

16th December

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Best Coast is Neko Case trapped inside a Jan & Dean song. They’re what happens when the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” agrees to a schoolyard throwdown with Wanda Jackson’s “Heard-headed Woman,” when the only thing you need to compliment your spiked lemonade on a blazing afternoon at the beach is an honest half-hour of syrupy surf pop and a good stereo to play it on.

They also are the bustling intersection somewhere in L.A. that witnessed the head-on collision of many bands over the years—Pocahaunted, Cold Wave, Mika Miko, Vivian Girls. Today the group has settled into its tight trio of Bobb Bruno, Ali Koehler and, most importantly, Bethany Cosentino, whose haunted vocals evoke visions of a plum horizon darkening at the edge of the sea in August as the V-shapes of birds swirl overhead.

It’s easy to criticize Best Coast’s latest LP Crazy for You for striking the single note of its sunny pop bias over and over again, but you can only feel that way about the record if you’re not listening closely enough. An evasive complexity lurks between these Pacific Ocean waves. “Boyfriend,” the record’s sublime and most recognizable single, joins the jangling atmospherics of Joy Division and The Cure with the 60s girl group pop of The Ronnettes, The Shangri-Las, or The Marvelettes, while “Bratty B” sounds like an outtake from Hole’s Live Through This recorded deep inside an echo chamber. And if equally majestic tracks like “I Want To,” “Crazy for You” or “The End” merely lengthen the same recipe, they also illustrate the band’s genius for shining the light of their sound through a prism of countless colors.

That is the very genius on which some of the greatest bands in history have founded their fortunes. Pair any two singles by the Stones or the Beach Boys against each other and you’ll hear songs that differ from one another about as much as sorrow differs from sadness. We can begrudge them for it, sure, but they’ve been laughing their critics all the way to the nearest bank for half a century now. Really, who are we kidding? It works, and don’t pretend like either band hasn’t taken your money too at one point or another.

Even if Crazy for You seems to spend much of its mere 30 minutes in length looking as far back in time as the band’s previous records have, it also breathes new life into glories attained and abandoned by peers such as The Thrills and their own ode to the “best coast,” So Much for the City. This record may be steeped in sounds excavated long ago by the influences they brandish like a badge, but somehow that’s exactly why it is such a fresh, inviting and welcome listen. And it helps that there is not a single bum track on the whole damned album.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com