Monday, May 2, 2011

Crystal Stilts - In Love With Oblivion (2011) REVIEW

"In Love With Oblivion" is Brooklyn quintet Crystal Stilts' second full-length and it's a gem. Their first LP "Alight of Night" in 2008 was already very promising but somewhat a little too claustrophobic and slightly unfinished, although all the ingredients that make Crystal Stilts a band to put aside from that huge wave of psych-garage rock bands with fuzzy guitars and keys, deadpan vocals and simple rocking to-the-face rhythm section were already there. Crystal Stilts made a difference through the focus, tightness, cohesiveness and great talent for hooks in their ensemble playing, the arrangement, the songwriting and the melodies. This sophomore record is no departure from their multi-influenced hazy rock'n roll aesthetics, they just refined their work, added more texture, deepened and expansed the sound mixing, enriched their melodies. A little earlier, the word "arrangement" was mentioned and what really set Crystal Stilts apart from other so-called garage bands, and even from many other rock combos, holds in the careful juxtaposition and organization of all the instruments in the sound spectrum. That this album still retains all the spontaneity and dirtiness of a rock'n roll band actually rehearsing in a garage is all the more a tour-de-force. "In Love With Oblivion" is one of the only dirty fuzzy hazy psych-garage rock albums which you can greatly enjoy listening to with headphones. All the instruments are at the same time pretty clear in the mix, except for the voice which is the most loaded with reverbs and seems to appear out of nowhere, or out of your own subconscious, the instruments are also stuck together like atoms to form one tight molecule that is Crystal Stilts. Contrary to many other relatively similar bands whose very laidback interplaying make them look like they don't really care, Crystal Stilts clearly cares, the only other example that comes to mind which shares a similar approach, careful, cohesive and spontaneous in short, is Canadian band Women and their last year luminous album "Public Strain", another multi-influenced band with a strong personality, but with very different but effective results.

Crystal Stilts haven't invented anything so far, their influences are numerous, but like Women they succeed to make them their own. I mean, they sound like they're just inventing it in front of your eyes, or ears. From the very first track "Sycamore Tree", the listener is drowned back into sixties psychedelic bands, the analog synth splashing intro is typical Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett era, the very basic 'motorik' drums pattern is slightly closer to proto-krautrock recordings like Can's "Monster Movies" for example. The guitar riff that enters then is almost Syd Barrett's "Lucifer Sam" but when Brad Hargett's deadpan vocals arrive the whole thing jumps one and half decade later into The Cramps territory while still retaining the already mentioned ghosts.

Crystal Stilts has been abusively compared to The Jesus and Marychain but this first track just like all the others on this album disqualify these preconceptions. First of all, as simple as the drums part is, it is obvious the New Yorkers got a real drummer. The only similarities reside in Brad Hargett's monotonous baritone voice and The Velvet Underground's influences. But where The Jesus and Marychain injected Velvet Underground in their guitars and primitive drumming, Crystal Stilts are infusing the Velvet into their dissonant, discordant, crashing wall of keys, broken piano and analog synths : this is mostly noticeable in the 7 minutes long "Alien Rivers" and surely the closing track "Prometheus At Large", the latter would easily fit on any of the two first Velvet Underground's albums, only everyone would wonder who's the new drummer. For the former song, "Alien Rivers", Crystal Stilts sounds less Velvet than one quite forgotten but brilliant band called Opal, a band founded by ex-Rain Parade David Roback before he met Hope Sandoval and become very successful with Mazzy Star. Those lazy but huge drums that seem to be recorded in some vast empty warehouse, atonal and lugubrious organ layers, dead bird analog tweeting synth here and there and the slow repetitive reverbed guitar riff all along. Brad Hargett is almost crooning on this song, but he seems half asleep and fighting courageously to articulate his alien, indeed, vocals and words. There's one thing that really keep this song, just like all the others again, together : the warm low and identifiable bass line. The band also likes to work with contrasts. The following song "Half a Moon" is the exact opposite of the previous one, one of the most uptempo track on the record, which contains lots of them, and we are with The Go-Betweens circa 80s fronted by Ian Curtis and produced by Syd Barrett. The next one "Flying Into The Sun" is even more The Go-Betweens with jangling guitars and overall song structure, only it doesn't sound like The Go-Betweens at all. Other influences, or at least reminiscences, are numerous : Felt's mid-eighties era, this forgotten English band's got a song called "Crystal Ball" which could fit our brooklynites catalogue perfectly; Creation Records boss Alan McGee's band Biff Bang Pow!, 80s psychedelic revival under the banner Paysley Underground around The Dream Syndicate, among others. There are moments Crystal Stilts makes me think of some Scandinavian 80s psych-garage revivalists like The Nomads and Leather Nun. And then surely sixties bands The Byrds, Love, The Red Crayola and this or that band on that unavoidable Nuggets compilation : The Seeds, The Sonics. Even The Smiths, Johnny Marr having abused of sleeping, or drugs, or red wine.

"In Love With Oblivion" contains irresistible sixties rock'n roll hits which bands like The Kinks, the already mentioned The Byrds or even psychedelic Rolling Stones wouldn't deny with "Through The Floor" and its impeccable guitar riff, "Silver Sun" jumpy rhythm section, jangling almost joyous guitars and poppy melodies, there's something of the early The House of Love there (another discovery from Creation's Alan McGee, btw), and "Shake the Shackles", The Go-Betweens (again) under acid. Then, on the other side of the sixties spectrum, "Precacious Stair" is Phil Spector producing The Kinks with 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson looking over the mix. All these songs are extremely memorable, just like 60s sugar pop could be, but the atmosphere remains dark and menacing, it is nightmarish pop music, and the dirtiness multi-layered haziness makes it pretty radio unfriendly, and it's a pity. Besides, the lyrics are quite as blurry as the band sounds, blurry like in a dream, or a nightmare, when scenes appear, the dreamer being an actor or just a witness, and disappear without much easily discernible meanings. While dreaming there's our voice regularly asking "why?", just like Brad Hargett is asking it all through the album, before most of everything has been forgotten, only image snippets remain for a short while until they too fall into oblivion. Concerning nightmare it's maybe for the best. Is it what the title "In Love With Oblivion" means?

All that said, Crystal Stilts is above all a rock'n roll band, just listen to "Death is What We Live For" to be convinced. Extremely efficient hard rocking kinky (Kinks?) guitar riffs turning into epic cavalcades during the refrain and layers of analog synth all along while the rhythm section is sweating its ass off. But even when hard rocking, it makes me smile to see that this band has been categorized as noisy, to me they are not, not really, it's organized chaos and they are not noisier than sixties punk The Sonics, okay a little more, but less than 1967 The Red Crayola, with whom Crystal Stilts shares some less anarchic impression of hearing two bands playing at the same time.

Now how can a band with so many assumed influences be that interesting and furthermore raise this over here spooky amateur reviewer enthusiasm to the level of giving them that high a rating? Here lays the mystery of what makes Crystal Stilts' second album such a gem : it's all about the style.

8 out of 10

  • Alight of Night (2008) - 7

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