Even when not all of School of Seven Bells' experiments work, they hit the dream-pop sweet spot with enough frequency to make their debut recording worthwhile.
Alpinisms is School of Seven Bells' first CD, but the band members are hardly strangers to music. The guitarist is one Benjamin Curtis, the same guitarist who famously left Secret Machines in 2007 before they produced the stiffest album in their catalogue. Twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, the band's vocalists, were singers for the New York City post-punk outfit On!Air!Library! -- which sounded as though they'd accidentally stumbled into Fugazi's studio on the way to see the Postal Service. And Claudia Deheza once holed up with Prefuse 73's Guillermo Scott Herren for a sensual, ethnically ambiguous one-off as A Cloud Mireya. Once the personnel found each other (while opening for Interpol) and School of Seven Bells was set in motion, they released two 7" records and collaborated with Prefuse 73 on his EP The Class of 73 Bells in what seemed like an attempt to figure out just what in the heck kind of band they wanted to be.
With Alpinisms, we get an answer: They want to be a dream-pop band. But that's not as simple as it appears on the surface, since modern day dream-pop can subsume shoegaze, twee-pop, and indie electronica, and School of Seven Bells incorporate all of those elements -- the cascading guitars, the programmed beats, the sugary melodies grafted from the early '90s that will always remind me of licking a lollipop. It's a sound that, when executed well enough, can cause even the most fair-weather listener to go weak at the knees. School of Seven Bells hit the sweet spot with enough frequency to make Alpinisms worthwhile, and though not every experiment works, it should give those who have been following these musicians around some satisfaction to realize that this is the sort of album they've been waiting so long to create.
School of Seven Bells may have been Curtis's idea, but Alpinisms presents as a Deheza twins vehicle, with Curtis providing an unobtrusive instrumental ballast that borders on egoless. Alejandra and Claudia are so in tune with their own songs, you can practically feel the telepathy operating in their cadences. All of them share songwriting credits, and together they steer the ship in some gorgeous directions. "Connjur" finds the sisters harmonizing like birds gliding higher and lower in the sky, above some Stones-y guitar, a crisp, driving rhythm and a heavenly drone. "Chain" is pure pop confectionery, a twee-pop throwback that makes excellent use of a vocoder. But even more striking is when the song emerges from the sound like cold water splashed in the face. In "For Kalaja Mari", one of the twins sings with forceful clarity, "Walk with me for a while to my house on the hill / Forget where your body lies and I'll forget mine as well / And you have as much hope as you have hopelessness" -- and here she grabs our shoulders -- "But can you identify just what keeps you down like this?" Who knew this kind of music wouldn't just make us feel, but think?
For all of the tasteful melodicism, Alpinisms essentially orbits around two components: rhythm and voice. The beats resist showboating, but there's usually something interesting and workmanlike nailing the songs to the ground. It's rhythm, in fact, that singlehandedly keeps the 11-minute "Sempiternal/Amaranth" from deliquescing into liquid, a motorik chug (played by Blonde Redhead's Simone Pace) that acts dually as a compass and a coach for the other elements to keep moving. But it's the vocals that stand tall among the mélange and define the record. The Deheza twins are better singers than they really have any right to be: both of them incorporate the perfect amounts of airiness and vibrato, and they sound positively alluring without being outright exotic. They're the sorts of vocalists Dntel would have killed for on Life is Full of Possibilities or hoped to recruit for a full-length collaboration. "Half Asleep" -- perhaps the album's trump card -- sparkles like a prime Dntel production, where the Dehezas ride waves of shimmering cymbals and careening guitars that nearly swallow them whole.
Alpinisms could have used a few more of those moments, when the sounds overtake each other and induce a sense of blissful surrender. The Dehezas' voices are such strong presences that they call for an equally powerful musical force to push up against them. I think of Sweet Trip's Valerie Cooper -- a vocalist remarkably akin to these two -- who, at the tail end of "Design : 2 : 3", sings a beautiful skyward melody beneath 100 pounds of shoegaze weight. Still, you have to admire their conviction, and even when the songs don't ring true -- there's just no way to salvage the awkward, Native American-tinged "Iamundernodisguise" no matter how hard you try -- it's clear that the musicians believe in their art. It's this passion, and the conscientiousness that's required to keep refining and refining in order to get it just right, that could someday elevate this band to greatness.