[21 March 2005]
It’s been said that the sense of smell has an unparalleled track record for conjuring memories. That’s most likely true, as last week I had an olfactory experience that was so stunning, it seemingly transported me back to a past life. In that moment alone, I was not one to argue.
Still, that common perception sells the sense of sound a bit short, especially when one considers that we all subconsciously link music to moments in our lives, both monumental and unimportant alike. It’s a psychic timestamp on an event, imprinted by a song’s passive or active intersection with us, bound to be resurrected upon hearing it once again.
Incidentally, there are records that trigger past memories even though we’ve never heard them before. Blocked Numbers, the debut album by Seattle popsters Crystal Skulls, has awakened within me a series of simple reminiscences, all revolving around a 1978 Volvo and the boredom-killing routes of a city from my past. Blocked Numbers is the music of short distance joy rides, of cross-town jaunts with no particular destination, of yield signs’ blinding light under the sun’s duress and flashing red lights and left-hand turn signals, of gas station pit stops and hand out the window to catch some fleeting cool air along the river, of Charleston Chew wrappers stuffed in the ashtray for lack of a better receptacle and pitying all the long-faced people with their nine-to-five jobs passing by in Chevys and Fords and Toyotas, all trying not to contemplate their own slow-moving inevitabilities. Or, the record moves.
Crystal Skulls make music that is stylishly conscious and sheepishly indebted to the AM soft rock sound of the ‘70s. Well-groomed with the mathematical jazz-pop ornamentations of Steely Dan, the glossy lucidity of Todd Rundgren, and the untainted charm of an unknown almost-hit wonder, Blocked Numbers gets by on its own shabby chic. The production is pragmatic yet seductive; the drums and bass, shaggy and warm, balance out the sonic spectrum by serving as the antithesis for the jagged guitars, all thumbtacky and precise.
“Your impulse turns into a reaction,” sings Crystal Skulls’ chief songwriter Christian Wargo on “Weak Spot”, adding: “I just want to move your apprehension into action”. These lines conveniently make sense of the band’s approach. Each of the album’s ten songs is set up with a similar flittering, itchy progression—cerebrally constructed pop tunes, executed with sprightly guitar runs—but each breaks free in its own way to create a wealth of memorable choruses. The aerodynamic, ready-for-takeoff zoom of “Airport Motels” serves not only as a breezy opener, but as a readymade blueprint for the Crystal Skulls’ style: a knotty chord sequence gradually comes untwisted to yield a linear, distinctive chorus. While this pattern repeats itself giddily on all of Blocked Numbers songs, it never feels redundant; if anything, it’s a comforting groove that the band has relaxed into, the sound of a young group that has already discovered what it wants to be. (Surely, the record’s runtime helps bypass any possibility of gratuitous repetition, clocking in at a little over 30 minutes.) Additionally, each song is ultimately defined by its subtle distinguishing characteristic: the pulsing keyboard urgency of “Beat Me to It”; the slippery guitar chords complimenting the vocal delivery in “Every Little Bit”; the Pretzel Logic grouchiness of “Hard Party” and “Locked Down” (Wargo does his best Donald Fagen on the latter); the loose guitar wrangling navigating the terrain of “Hussy”.
I’m fully aware that not everyone will receive the same kinds of mental transmissions as me when listening to Crystal Skulls. Regardless, their debut is as tight and nuanced as a sharp right turn, the playing as effortlessly sharp as any number of the slick ‘70s pop bands they may recall. It’s a confident beginning for a band with all kinds of promise. Blocked Numbers is getting heavy rotation on my stereo; if it’s due wholly to the private sensations it evokes, so be it.