[15 June 2011]
Crystal Stilts come from a breed of band that might as well be labeled “record store rock”. In a way, their sound is what you’d expect to be hear played at your local indie record shop, perhaps marking the presence of the clerk who works Saturday afternoons, or whenever you stop in. It’s garage, it’s psych, it’s indie, it’s basically the sound of any band heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and all their notable followers.
Their reverence for the Velvet Underground isn’t tough to grasp. They hail from New York, write dark, druggy music, and feature a distant front man who’s into dark shades. Ask the naysayers and they’ll probably say they lack charisma, sound too much like Joy Division, or just hate puppies and sunshine. While all of the above may be true, new record In Love with Oblivion refines the band’s songwriting craft and marks their most accomplished work to date.
Crystal Stilts first hit the scene in 2008, when “crystal” was the word to name your buzzband (see: Crystal Antlers, Crystal Castles). They gained a following through strong showings at SXSW and CMJ festivals, and released their debut, Alight of Night, to a warm reception within the indie rock community. The record was dreary and claustrophobic, but did suggest the group had more up their sleeves than most Joy Division spin-offs to emerge in the past decade. In Love with Oblivion is strong enough to keep them on the indie rock radar and suggest even further mastery of their sound in the future.
What’s dogged this band in the past hasn’t been their songbook, but the alleged lack of presence from vocalist Brad Hargett. The baritone-voiced frontman most certainly does not possess a vast vocal range, but hasn’t the National already rid indie rock of this stigma? At times, his detached croon functions more like an extra instrument anyway, dominating their low end along with the persistent walking bass lines of Andy Adler.
The best song is the galloping opener “Sycamore Tree”, the band’s most upbeat work to date. The characteristic gloom is still there, only now Crystal Stilts seem more comfortable writing songs that are much less passive in courting the listener’s attention. Where previous work was distant and atmospheric, the majority of In Love with Oblivion takes heavy cues from psychedelic garage rock. Tracks like “Silver Sun” and “Shake the Shackles” recall everything from the Doors to the Electric Prunes, with their archaic moog synthesizer and choppy, melodic guitar work. It’s not all garage-psych clatter, though. “Alien Rivers” sounds a great deal like ‘80s goth rock icons Bauhaus, or perhaps a track that missed the cut for Joy Division’s Closer. In other words, it’s a seven-minute psych-drone trip that pushes the band nearer to goth territory than ever before.
As a whole, the record plays much like a journey through years of music, psychedelic or otherwise, that’s been labeled “punk” or “garage”, with special allegiances to many of the usual suspects. Paired with Oakland’s Slumberland Records (the favorite label of any college music director from 1989), they certainly aren’t alone in their love of independent rock’s past. This may be one of the most depressing albums released all year, but it’s also one of indie rock’s most surprisingly melodic and historically aware.