Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Starling Electric self-released their debut record, Clouded Staircase, back in 2006. The band has since been signed by Bar/None Records, who are re-releasing the album. The four-piece is fronted and guided by Caleb Dillon, who wrote everything on the album and plays the bulk of the instruments as well. The band’s sound is pure indie-pop — at times they rock out, but just as often the songs are piano or acoustic-guitar driven, often foregoing drums.
Dillon’s songs seem written to take full advantage of his voice. He sings in a soft tenor that gives the music an ethereal quality. Well-placed background harmonies and an array of cannily chosen keyboard sounds (a flute here, a harp there) add to this slightly dreamy feeling. His bandmates contribute in bits and pieces, most notably John Fossum, who handles most of the drumming (when it occurs). Jason DeCamillis and Christian Anderson contribute various instruments and backing vocals on selected tracks, but probably have a lot more to do in the band’s live shows.
“The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” opens the album on an upbeat-sounding note, despite the title. A punchy electric guitar riff drives the song along, but Dillon’s vocals add a floaty quality to what is otherwise a pretty hard-charging song. This gives way to “Clouded Staircase (Part One)”, the first of three parts. This part uses the tender combination of piano and acoustic guitar playing the same thing, and features whispered vocals, some of which sound like they’re being played backwards. When “Clouded Staircase (Part Two)” shows up a little later on, it’s still piano-based, but this time it sounds like a sunny ’70s pop tune. Part Three comes late, the second-to-last song on the album, and takes the original theme through a couple of different minor keys before fading into “Dust Chord”, the bittersweet acoustic guitar ballad that closes the record.
In between, Starling Electric runs through several different styles of pop, some more successful than others. The organ-driven “Camp-Fire” is striking and catchy, and has a great fade-out and reprise in the last minute of the song. “Black Ghost/Black Girl” is a ’60s-style rock song that fits Dillon’s siging voice like a glove. “I Got Scared” combines harp arpeggios, glockenspiel, and a mellotron drone and works beautifully, but “A Snowflake” uses soft electric guitar and flute much less effectively, and the song just sort of stops.
Despite being on CD, the album is clearly marked with a “Side One” and “Side Two”. To that effect, “New Era” and “All Through the Fall” do a good job of finishing and starting the sides, respectively. “New Era” has an air of nostalgia and finality in its lyrics, while “All Through the Fall” uses a bright guitar riff that brings to mind a sunny morning. Next, “To Flunker, With Love” may be Starling Electric’s shining pop moment where everything comes together. Dillon’s vocals take on a little more intensity than usual, while DeCamillis’s swirling lead guitars and Fossum’s active drums give the tune more energy than the bulk of the songs on the album. The second half of the album drags badly after this until the catchy guitar-driven instrumental “British Boots” puts the band back on track through the end.
Clouded Staircase is a solidly written and arranged album, but it’s a bit bloated at 18 songs. A little self-editing may have helped with the disc’s saggy second half. Caleb Dillon has a lot of skill as a songwriter and pulls off a lot of different things here, but not everything completely works. Still, it’s a good debut record for Starling Electric and probably worth a look for fans of dreamy indie stuff.