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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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Meet Peter Salett

7th July

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Every once in a while and usually out of the blue, an artist comes along who seems so uninterested in being anyone other than who he is that even some of your most favorite bands seem like pretenders by comparison. I think of J.J. Cale back in 2004 on his first tour in forever and with a rare new album in stores, uttering not a single word about the new material and playing not one track from the CD the whole damned night. I think of The Velvet Underground, Bell & Sebastian, Josh Rouse, Mark Knopfler—artists whose only objective is to be true to their own vision despite any cost that authenticity may entail. But it’s time to put those Bright Eyes CDs back on the rack and check out a new guy on the block (well, new-ish—you just haven’t heard of him yet): Peter Salett, whose promising new album, In the Ocean of the Stars, is due out July 22nd.

Even bands of such indisputable integrity as Velvet Underground or Belle & Sebastian can seem stuck in a bit of a shtick after a while; that you can so assuredly turn to them at any time to deliver exactly the kind of sound your latest mood craves is great, but it’s also the kind of reliability that mars the work of bands who cling to what works rather than challenging themselves to expand their creative arsenals. Soon, that favorite band of yours just doesn’t catch you off guard any more; every song’s move and gesture inhabits its own permanent room in your memory, and you start to wonder where the groove went.

That’s when you turn to artists like Peter Salett, whose work at once appeases and surprises, delivering a steady serving of cool-minded folk pop that’s laced with the occasional, unanticipated flourish—a distant twang of lap steel silvers the edges of the song, or the funky tear of an amped-up guitar fractures a ballad’s fragile beauty to reveal something even more powerful and, it turns out, wholly unexpected. Suddenly you remember what it felt like when you fell in love with that one favorite band all those years ago.


Peter Salett: “With Anybody Else,” After A While (2004)

Unlike most of those established favorites, though, there’s something mildly brazen in Salett’s delivery that promises to never go stale. Listening to an entire album of his—a rare feat in this age of the mp3—reveals a range of impressive breadth and confidence. “Heart of Mine,” featured on the soundtrack for 2000’s Ben Stiller flick Keeping the Faith (yes, Salett’s been at it for a while now—question is, where have you been?), smacks of a kind of wizened Ben Folds or the charged piano pop of Mark Malman. But just when a folk-pop masterpiece like “With Anybody Else” tempts you to suspect that you’ve got Salett’s number, he digs for the devastating depths of “What A Beautiful Dancer” from his upcoming Ocean of the Stars, an uncharacteristically rocking tune that incorporates elements of surf rock and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse into his bright acoustic brand of indie pop. It’s a trippy piece of rock ‘n roll that picks up where the last Sparklehorse album left off–think “Mountains” or “Knives of Summertime.”

Like “Heart of Mine,” Salett’s new single, “Miss You,” sleepwalks breezily into a gorgeous acoustic soundscape that floats through its too-brief couple of minutes by force of its own mildly embittered longing. As if to make the much-needed suggestion that “indie” isn’t necessarily synonymous with self-loathing, though, Salett is careful not to linger in those sentiments too long. He quickly rebounds (oh, the puns!) with the sweetened melancholy of spare pieces like “Safe” or the album-closing “Sunshine,” a tune that captures the wistful daydreams of Salett’s sound and songwriting as accurately as anything he’s put to tape. Ocean of the Stars doesn’t depart in any measurable way from Salett’s proven recipe of laid back folk-pop with the occasional edge you never saw coming, but that’s because he neither needs nor intends to change. He is who he is. And, anyway, with a musical palate as wide as his, there’s really nowhere to depart to that he hasn’t already been.

Brian Jonestown Massacre: Bring Me the Head of Paul McCartney on Heather Mills’ Wooden Peg

14th April

Newcombe

“Everybody’s a fucking asshole. Period.” — Anton Newcombe

No, we’re not shitting you: the title of the opening track on Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album is–take a deep breath, now–“Bring us the Head of Paul McCartney on Heather Mills’ Wooden Peg.” Anton Newcombe’s timing could not possibly be better, as Mills, who recently wished McCartney’s “three girlfriends . . . the best of luck” and explained that she merely “baptized” his lawyer when she dumped a bowl of water over the poor woman’s head in court, has joined the cemetery of drive-by celebrity at the Vegas Ms. USA pageant with the likes of Joey Fatone and Rob Schneider. Remember them? Right. Neither do we. So here’s a generous helping of “back at ya bitch!” from Mr. Anton Newcombe and friends. We couldn’t think of a more fitting messenger.

But that’s not the whole title, actually. It comes with the parenthetical “Dropping Bombs on the White House.” Yes, Mr. Newcombe’s courting many enemies, it seems–McCartney, Mills, Dubya, and, as you’ll see below, Michael Stipe, John Lennon, monkeys, and people from Iceland. But isn’t that just kind of what he does? The band’s been through enough members to fill a minor league ballpark, and Newcombe reportedly leaned into a mic at a show in Iceland recently and referred to the audience as “these fucking Albanians” when a bunch of hecklers up front pissed him off. The hecklers hoped to instigate a fight in the spirit of DIG, a documentary about BJM and The Dandy Warhols released a couple years back that has become such a bane of Newcombe’s existence that he furiously bolts interviews the second it’s mentioned. Judging from other choice titles on the album–and, for that matter, the music, which “was all recorded in one take” and includes songs sung in Icelandic–he’s out to prove once and for all that he really doesn’t give a fuck anymore–no, like, really.

About the “19 videos” he says he’s made for the new album, Newcombe tells Drowned in Sound that “they don’t specifically relate to anything. We just did them in Iceland as our way of saying we can do whatever the fuck we want.” The guy’s not kidding. Take track 10, for example: “Automatic-Faggot For the People,” a not-so-sublte nod to recently un-closeted Michael Stipe, perhaps (Ya think?!)? Then there’s “We Are the Niggers of the World”–a bleak and spare piece that sounds like Newcombe took his piano to the roof of an abandoned shoe factory and played an impromptu tune amid a massive power outage brought on by some historic blizzard, a stale cigarette stuck to his lips as he exhales the smoke of his whiskey breath into the frozen sky, wiry morning-hair flailing wildly in the wind. He sounds like he’s the last man left in the perpetual night of the world. In other words, it’s a far cry from John Lennon’s bombastic “Woman is the Nigger of the World”–just another of the album’s many bizarre allusions and daggers.

“The Ballad of Jim Jones”

But just when we’re about to get clever with our theoretical interpretations of the album title itself, My Bloody Underground–is it a nod to My Bloody Valentine? Velvet Underground Tribute? Veiled reference to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “My Little Underground”–along comes Anton himself to concede in an interview that the word “Bloody” is just a substitute for “fucking.” Oh. Kind of the way Hot Tuna somehow derived their name from the original suggestion, “Hot Shit”–though we’re unaware of any language in which “tuna” is slang for “shit.” But we’re always eager to learn something, so feel free to expose our ignorance.

“Get the fucking Mary Chain out of it,” he barked at the two quivering bloggers at Drowned in Sound, who, by this point, were most certainly pissing themselves in terror, “We already had bands before they did . . . I don’t understand why you’re thinking My Bloody Valentine either.” Oh, surely not, Anton–it’s a total mystery! “You’re quoted as saying it,” the interviewers squeaked from beneath the rocks they’d crawled under while whispering desperate prayers for the good Lord to spare them.

BJM

Our personal favorite tracks here at Culturespill, though, are “Who Fucking Pissed in my Well” (track 3), “Monkey Powder” (track 12), and the golden great “Ljosmyndir.” Culturespill’s taking votes on that one, by the way. Ljosmyndir: Is it 1.) a sexually transmitted disease, 2.) an Icelandic breakfast food involving ground liver and head cheese, or 3.) A newfangled eastern European pastime that requires excessive nudity, Quervo, circus dwarfs and parasailing. Please vote now in the “comments” section below. “We just made them up as we were goin’ on,” Newcombe says of the MBU sessions, “took a bunch of drugs, went out with friends, created some more of the track, y’know.” Yeah, we know, Anton. Honest we do. Please don’t boil and eat us, sir. “Fuck you!” Newcombe roars as he’s asked if he regrets not signing to a major label, “Seriously. Fuck you! FUCK YOU . . . fuck. off. This conversation is over . . . ” (slams receiver down).

The man’s notorious instability is on full exhibition throughout My Bloody Underground, a spacey whirring of drugged guitars that wander to no rhythmic destination in particular, exploring instead the same neo-psychedelic abyss Newcombe’s made his stomping ground. This time, though, whatever cohesion or focus that prior masterpieces like “Anemone” or “Mansion in the Sky” offered is abandoned in favor of a peculiar aimlessness, a persuasive confirmation of Newcombe’s tale about taking “a bunch of drugs” in advance. A few tracks in, the album gives you the feeling that you’ve just dropped a year’s-worth of acid, stripped to your bare ass, and gone backstroking at night into the middle of the Atlantic, floating under the bone-white glow of the staring moon and wholly committed to the possibility that you might die. You don’t, of course, but man, it sure is a trip in the meantime!

But you’ve got to take it easy on a guy who titles his band’s greatest hits album Tepid Peppermint Wonderland. Judging from choice clips of the interview quoted above, Newcombe’s likely to respond to demands for further coherence by either removing your arms with a pair of beard trimmers or jumping off a bridge. In either case, we think you’ll agree that the results are wholly undesirable–so don’t push it, kid.