[12 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Success caught Justin Vallesteros by surprise. Recording under the name Craft Spells, in a matter of months, he went from dabbling in his bedroom to getting a record deal, making a video, and receiving glowing reviews from respected publications. Idle Labor, released in 2011, was well-received but left the Seattle-born, California-raised Vallesteros confused and wondering what to do next.
After a follow-up EP in 2012, Vallesteros decamped to San Francisco, where he quickly became alienated and coped by over-indulging in social media. Sensing the need for major change, he eventually moved in with his parents back in California, cut the internet cords, and even gave up his primary instrument, guitar, focusing on piano instead.
The result is Nausea, and what a sea change it is.
Okay, Idle Labor fans, here’s the part where you have to read that Nausea doesn’t sound all that much like the debut. In fact, it is largely free of what you probably loved about that record. The cover art to Idle Labor was a clear, unabashed reference to New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies and that 1983 benchmark of introspective yet catchy and danceable indie synth pop informed the music on Craft Spells’ music as well. Idle Labor was catchy, danceable synth pop, all right, only more fey and whimsical than most of Vallesteros’s ‘80s influences.
Now check the art for Nausea. With its spooky typeface and washed-out monochrome, it recalls the Cure’s Faith, their downcast, navel-gazing 1981 mope-rock masterpiece. No, Nausea isn’t that monochromatic or depressing. But it all but does away with the synth pop angle. The punchy, metronomic drum machines of Idle Labor are gone, too, as are most of the faster tempos. The tighter, more chirpy and catchy song structures are in short supply. Instead, think of the more eclectic, vaguely ethnic style of the Cure’s mid-‘80s work. Or, even more accurately, the agreeable, melancholy midtempos of Smith Westerns’ recent Soft Will.
While this may take some getting over for certain Craft Spells fans, the upshot is Nausea is far richer, deeper, more interesting, and, yes, better than its predecessor.
“Is it so strange to be alone?” Vallestaros asks on the title track. Nausea seems to be a cycle of songs about his “dropping out” experience during the album’s composition, and his attempt to go back home again in the broad sense. It is full self-reflection without resorting to self-absorption, no easy feat to pull off. The music is reflective as well, finding lush, measured vistas of sound and taking its time to get there. The very word Nausea evokes ugliness and malady, and Vallestaros has described his San Francisco experience as “nauseating”. But these terms belie the songs’ innate sense of beauty. Following a twinkling, swooning verse, the chorus of that title track does take a turn toward woozy uneasiness, but it’s never ugly, much less putrid.
In these days of Soundcloud, YouTube, and single-song digital downloading, it’s a rare occurrence when an album can inspire such as great degree of trust in the listener. Though its subject matter is often delicate and its arrangements are often ornate, Nausea sounds so sure of itself, so utterly comfortable with where it’s at and what it’s about, it holds together in extraordinarily solid fashion. Several tracks have airy, vaguely Far Eastern melodies, while “Dwindle” features sitar-like guitar and what sounds like an Indian sarangi. But Nausea is not the sound of an artist trying to turn away from past success and be artsy and pretentious just for the sake of it. The moment the airy “Changing Faces” reaches a beautiful, Spanish-style strummed guitar interlude is when you fully realize Vallestaros and Craft Spells have completely and naturally transcended their bedroom-pop beginnings.
They haven’t completely abandoned perkiness, either. “Twirl” is a shimmering guitarscape whose sing-song chorus makes disaffection sound like a dizzying, life-affirming first crush, and even sneaks in a bit of distortion at the end. Lead single “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide”, the album’s only real uptempo number, swirls on a bed of strings and a pining, circular guitar riff that would make Johnny Marr proud.
The secret key to making this all work, though, is that Nausea overcomes the biggest weakness in Craft Spells’ previous work, one which was nearly crippling. That would be Vallesteros’ voice. It has been compared to Ian Curtis, but that was just a kind way of saying it was flat and off-key. Plus, it had none of the potential energy of Curtis’ brooding. When fronting plucky synth-pop, it just didn’t work. Here, though, Vallesteros is swathed in reverb, which works wonders. He also sings more confidently and melodically, lending his voice a certain soothing quality. You put a lot of stock in these songs because you, in turn, have confidence in the man who is singing them.
Craft Spells’ previous work wasn’t bad, but Nausea is such an unexpected metamorphosis that Vallesteros could just as well have changed the band name. Even in a crowded dreampop field, this is music to bask in, whatever you call it.