Monday, April 11, 2011

Album: The Crystal Stilts - In Love with Oblivion

In Love With Oblivion (The Crystal Stilts)
Album: In Love with Oblivion
Slumberland, 2011
Rating: ***** (5/10)

When I first heard the Crystal Stilts' "Converging in the Quiet" in 2008, I immediately proclaimed them to be the greatest thing, like, ever - both here and to anyone who would listen to me in real life. However, over the following year, I painfully fell out of love with band, due in large part to their arrogant and lazy stage presence and their formulaic song after formulaic song. (The Stilts formula, which bears a striking resemblance to the formula of many other bands with whom the Stilts have shared labels or stages, basically involves a bass line that falls somewhere in the Peter Hook (Joy Division) to C-86 continuum, ultra-jangly guitars and let's-see-how-much-reverb-we-can-possibly-put-on-these low tenor vocals, in case you missed the memo.)

In Love With Oblivion does little to appease my ambivalence towards the band. The album is eleven songs long, but the first two tracks are recycled from previous releases. "Sycamore Tree," okay, that wasn't a proper release, but "Through the Floor"? Really? A demo version of that track appeared on the band's 2008 Woodsist debut. Yes, they've spruced it up a bit since then, but I wouldn't say they've improved it and they certainly haven't dramatically revamped it. This isn't the first time the Stilts have resorted to recycling, though - they also released a watered down version of "Converging in the Quiet" from the same Woodsist release under the name "Departure" on their later Slumberland debut. It's as though the band thinks no one has heard their Woodsist EP and doesn't want any of their songs to go unheard by the casual listener (or like they couldn't write enough new songs for a new album). But save it for your Singles and B-Sides comp, guys.

To their credit, the songs on In Love With Oblivion do expand on the Stilts' old tricks by adding some production tricks and synthesizers (or something). The band also throws around some Spanish-ish modal experiments with mostly positive results. In Love also sees them continuing their trend towards the faster, sadly often without also continuing their parallel trend toward the catchier. A cynic might say the band has moved from imitating Joy Division to imitating another touchstone of underground rock: the Velvet Underground. However, that would be oversimplifying the story.

Despite more creative arrangements, the first few songs on the album feel dull and ultimately forgettable. "Sycamore Tree" has a surfy flavor, while "Through the Floor" is all Jesus and Mary Chain (but with awkward and thankfully low-mixed piano). "Silver Suns" is a gentle, warm song that's certainly well crafted, but it too becomes tarnished when you realize the main guitar riff is just the first half of the riff from "Lady Godiva's Operation" (the Velvets, again) with the rhythm subtly inverted.

"Half A Moon" finally introduces a Stilts that don't sound completely derivative. The song is still vintage in sensibility, but the melodic riff that tears through and the double-speed bass give the Stilts a sound, their sound. The subsequent drama of "Flying into the Sun" and "Shake the Shackles" is a mixed blessing, but the added instrumentation and the striking clarity of that added instrumentation against the Stilts' murk (granted, it would not have striking clarity against any other backdrop) ultimately shows the band pushing in new directions. While they haven't yet arrived, at least they're moving forward. The following track "Precarious Stair," however, while being a well-constructed midtempo pop song at its core, is frankly a mess. While I laud the band's most extreme attempt at branching out to date, timpani and autoharp (?!) are not really the way to go. Continuing the damage, "Invisible City" is based around an untamed organ that comes off as cheesy, almost self-mocking, but without actually being funny or making a statement.

"Blood Barons" picks things up a bit, with a very late-Velvets guitar and a bass-line lifted straight from Suicide's "Ghost Rider" (albeit slightly rhythmically askew from the original). Ripping off two bands at once doesn't generally produce very original sounding results, and it definitely doesn't here. That said, "Blood Barons" is at least catchy.

Closing the album, the piano-based "Prometheus at Large" shows the band again overreaching. Their foray into honky-tonk piano probably comes via songs like the Velvets "I'm Waiting for the Man," especially judging from the again very Velvets-inflected guitar (this time, recalling the Velvets' earlier scratchy, spastic freakouts). However, while Lou Reed and company could actually pull off some boogie woogie behind the keys, the Stilts lack the black culture roots or sincerity to pull it off. As always, the band sounds three times removed in a cloud of aloof irony, obscure (or not so obscure) reference points and oh so much reverb - only with the piano backing, they actually sound kind of racist doing it.

The one bright spot on the album (although "bright" is actually the very wrong word to describe it) is the seven minute plus "Alien Rivers." Here, the band's postpunk model finally reaches its potential. Although I'm not usually a fan of long songs, "Alien Rivers" is a misty and foreboding bass-driven masterpiece that shows the band's growth far more organically than the albums' later tracks do - here, the experimental elements roll out with subtlety and control throughout the song as though the band is actually drifting downriver into some dark and alien forest. At fourth, the song comes a little early in the album to be called its "centerpiece" but "Rivers" definitely fills that role. Gloomy bass a la Joy Division, PIL or even Bauhaus melds seamlessly with a sinister tango-ing organ and Old West guitar. The drama of these three instruments, while recalling three distinctly different styles, fits together neatly in that enigmatic combination of tongue-in-cheek gloom-and-doom and sincere misery originally perfected in postpunk England. Four and a half of this album's five stars come from this track, but with its length and subtly, it is very much an album track that only truly makes sense in the context of the sub-par remainder of the album.

With blatant rip-offs around every corner, In Love with Oblivion is somewhat challenging for anyone versed in classic underground pop. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable listen at most points and even manages to be remarkable at a few. Don't break the bank for this one, but don't give up on the Stilts quite yet.

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