Legend has it that Oklahoma-based psych pop quartet Ester Drang signed to Jade Tree Records on the strength of their demos, if the band's press kit is to be believed. And while that's a little like being the best bullfighter in Alaska, it certainly doesn't lessen the fact that Ester Drang's Jade Tree debut Infinite Keys is a beautifully crafted, lush addition to the indie pop canon.
The band, and especially lead singer/guitarist Bryce Chambers, tends to wears its influences on its sleeve. The most obvious description of Infinite Keys is that it sounds like Wayne Coyne collaborating with Radiohead to record Wilco's Summerteeth. In fact, the spectre of fellow Oklahoman and Flaming Lips frontman Coyne looms large over many of Infinite Keys's tracks. Album opener "Temple Mount" opens with a low engine rumble, preparatory violins, a doom-tinged guitar, and finally Chambers' ethereal voice. It's a recipe that is repeated on nearly every track, but to the band's credit, they do it well.
It takes a moment to lock into Ester Drang's orchestration, but one you're keyed (sorry) into Chambers' vision, the music washes over you and it's simply thrilling. While less sprawling than Goldenwest, their 2001 space rock debut, Infinite Keys is still chockablock with moments of grandeur. To wit, Jeff Shoop's piano finds its way into "Temple Mount", and the song soars like a plane flying over the Grand Canyon in an IMAX movie. The jazzed-up horns on "Dead Man's Point of View" pop up and leave as quick as they entered. Meanwhile, watery guitars wash over the appropriately titled "Oceans of You". These songs are so thick and lush one practically needs a machete to navigate them. If only the vocals could keep up with the instrumentation.
The band has a knack of well-crafted pop, in addition to the expansive stuff (a la the aforementioned Wilco). "One Hundred Times" approaches straight-up pop and (features a killer sweeping guitar solo) before giving way to the jangly "The Greatest Thing", which unabashedly cribs from the Flaming Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic (again with the Coyne). Chambers' fuzzed-out, whiny-but-warm vocals never come closer to Coyne than they do on "The Greatest Thing". Lips-prints are all over "If They Only Knew", too. With its pastoral guitar coupled with bleeps 'n' bloops, pianos, and violins, it's comes across as "It's Summertime" redux (from the Lips' Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots).
Infinite Keys ends strong with the quasi-title track "I Don't Want to Live (In a World of Infinite Keys)", which has instrumentation so compelling and epic, it's almost a letdown when Chambers' vocals arrive. The song also brings into focus an important point about Ester Drang. For all the bells and whistles (sometimes literally) in the band's kitchen-sink approach to indie chamber pop, never once do they collapse into cacophony. Other bands (again, Wilco and Radiohead) are lauded for their ventures into musical entropy, and deservedly so, but let's give props to Ester Drang for holding their gorgeous songs together.
So where does all this leave us? Between Ester Drang, Flaming Lips and the poppier-but-similarly-minded Starlight Mints, there must be something in Oklahoma's water supply that inspires lush, off-kilter indie rock. And more to the point, Infinite Keys finds in Ester Drang a band tightening its focus, while losing none of its beauty and expressiveness.