The Ken Burns Effect has had two cover images. The old one (found here) for the European release last year is cryptic but pleasant – there’s even a rainbow! – but the one you’ll see in North America feels a bit more fitting. Not because of the bloodied old man raising his fists to the camera (this music still isn’t terribly pugnacious), but because now the band’s name is superimposed on the image in large block letters. For a group that has been unheralded and content to remain obscure for too long, it’s a welcome and necessary step towards recognition and exposure.
Or it’s just some striking cover art. What’s really important here is the music, as mysterious, befuddling and transcendent as ever. There’s a bunch of information on the press release, a ton of names involved and pedigrees involving very respected past bands, but I don’t want to go over it, to give much if any context for Stars Like Fleas. They don’t need it, and you’re going to forget it when the music’s playing, anyways. The important bit is that Stars Like Fleas is both a two-man band (Montgomery Knott on words/vocals and Shannon Fields on nearly everything else) and a collective, roping in personnel from a laundry list of great bands. They play anything they can get their hands on, and they play them as if music wasn’t an art so much as a direct channel to the unconscious.
Anyone who has reservations or even visceral discomfort about most of the music being made in the world of indie that embraces shaggy mysticism, occasional abrasiveness and unforced effort, as I do, should be reassured. You can’t fit Stars Like Fleas in with all those crap acts that Animal Collective are probably inadvertently responsible for. They slip neatly out of that category by having a delicate sense of restraint, of keeping things close to the vest, and also just by making one of the more beautiful records you are likely to find in 2008. Knott’s voice is recorded as if he’s singing not just to you but directly into your ear canal, and amidst the sonic field that Fields’ design and production clears the various actors dip into folk, jazz, atonality, ambience, and a dozen other fields without ever leaving the distinct terrain the band hasn’t so much claimed for themselves as created.
The two acts that tend to get tossed around as comparison points for the band are late Talk Talk and early Robert Wyatt, and both are apt; but you should add in the overlooked Sweet Billy Pilgrim for the tunefulness and the occasional feeling of weightlessness, and ambient duo Mountains for the pristine sound design and hints of the natural world, the sense that the music of Stars Like Fleas isn’t restricted to these hermetic plastic discs but extends outwards into the rest of everything. (You’ve just got a slice here, in other words, but when did you ever have more?)
I kind of hate to use either cliché, but both apply. This is an album that demands to be heard on headphones, everything popping out at you vividly once you do, and that also needs to be taken as a piece. The individual tracks work well on their own. “See For the Woods” manages to be heart breaking for no other reason than because everyone is swaying, chanting “Always, always / forever” by the end, while “Berbers in Tennis Shoes” playfully points towards what a pop version of Knott and Fields’ vision would be like. But it’s as a sustained, 54-minute exploration that Stars Like Fleas works best. By the actually cataclysmic, king-sized closer “Some Nettles,” (which rightly shows up most band’s efforts at that sort of thing), it’s hard not to feel shaken and drained, as well as uplifted and rejuvenated, by what this band does.
The press release for The Ken Burns Effect talks about Knott and Fields going to Iceland to mix and master the record with Valgeir Siggurdson and Ben Frost of the fantastic Bedroom Community label, and jokes that they also “came to an understanding with glaciers.” After listening to this album, that doesn’t sound goofy any more. Stars Like Fleas move faster than most glaciers, but they are as all-encompassing, as powerful, and as strange in their beauty.