Think of the phrase ‘crystal stilts’; what adjectives spring to mind? Ethereal, luxurious, sparkly… or useless, disposable and vapid. Mellifluously sung summery indie is commonplace in contemporary music; as the trend has become normalised and the style a well-trodden creative path, much of the output has become insipidly throwaway and as derivative and tedious as the plastic lyrical subjects they explore. And yet that sonic shallowness and those easy-listening guitar lines are strangely addictive – it’s the kind of stuff that Crystal Stilts have been adept at generating in their first two albums Alight of Night and In Love With Oblivion.
The singles from this the new body are similar in laissez-faire attitude. ‘Future Folklore’ and particularly ‘Star Crawl’ are both doused in vats of reverb that opulently augment the laid-back riffage. Not the stoned, manic laid-backness of FIDLAR though; more like Beat Happening but not in the 80s. It’s nothing new or striking, but comfortably consumer-able. However those insubstantial stilts that the Brooklyn band have built their decade long career on are shifted towards the back end – it’s the more interesting end. Interesting in the sense that the songs adopt a slightly more experimental veneer, or look to bring more meaningful topics to the laid-back scuzzy discourse table. It’s important to state quite clearly though that ‘interesting’ does not necessarily entail ‘better’. There is a difference.
For example, the bookend ‘Phases Forever’ is wistful and mourning but still stuck in the emotionless rut of over-reverbed vocals. Brad Hargett’s singing is backed by some faux-string bits that lend faux-spectacle to a track that ponders its incongruous presence on a Crystal Stilts album. It is the quintessential filler, serving as nothing more than as a signpost to the end of Nature Noir. Nevertheless it remains an interesting turn of pace. And in the over-saturated information world that is something at least. The titular song, at number nine in the tracklist, isn’t much better. Think ‘nature noir’ and you would be forgiven for imagining something brooding, dark and all-encompassing. Instead it’s a wishy-washy paean to… nothing really. That might sound a little too damning. The songs in themselves are not bad, just not as good as other artists who ply their trades in similar sonic spheres. Of course that begs the question of whether a body of work ought to be reviewed with comparisons to other artists in mind, or if an album should be considered in isolation from outside influences. That’s a journalistic philosophy individual to each writer and is usually subject to the muso’s mood at time of listening.
Back to Nature Noir though and there is a consolation: the opening song. ‘Spirit in Front of Me’ is a slow-burning psychedelic jam in the same vein as The Holydrug Couple and Psychic Ills, resonating with psychotic paranoia but always with the undertone of splendid salvation. It wraps wraith-like tendrils around the mind and caresses, alternating between undulating rhythm and oozy effects mirage. It’s not innovative per se but a special craft is still necessary to write something like ‘Spirit in Front of Me’. It’s also a knowing and self-referential nod to the more textured and avant-garde psych music of the early 70s and effects-driven 00s alternative that arose from the nu-gaze thing a few years ago.
In 20 years not many people will remember Nature Noir. But it will be representative of a modern type of music that draws influence from multiple strands – strands that are both sparkly and disposable. And I think that’s something Crystal Stilts are proud of, regardless of whether they’re aware of it or not.
Nature Noir comes out on September 16th 2013 in the UK via the Sacred Bones Records, and the 17th in the US. The Stilts are also embarking on a winter tour through Britain; the dates are as follows:
23-Nov – Green Door Store, Brighton
24-Nov – Liverpool Psychfest party, Liverpool
25-Nov – Mono, Glasgow
26-Nov – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
27-Nov – The Exchange, Bristol
28-Nov – Cargo, London
by Barney Horner