Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Crystal Stilts - Alight of the Night (***)

Only one song was officially a demo on Crystal Stilts' self-titled debut EP (released earlier this year exclusively via Emusic), although you'd never realize that fact when listening to their full-length debut Alight of the Night, which carries over three of the EPs best tracks in infinitely fuller form. I'm not sure if I'd call it better form however, as these songs at a base level are pretty strong pop songs in their own right. On Alight of the Night though, the reverb is layered even thicker, the guitars are more twice as robust, and the blurred haze that drifted throughout their early work is stacked head-high from the album's opening notes. As a result, the garage rock vibe of the band is accentuated, while the kiwi-pop tendencies that critics have been so eager to point out are now buried beneath towers of slow-motion amp fuzz. There is something to be said for both approaches, although the EP may be more palatable and easily approachable for first time listeners (I'd say they're about equal in quality).

For what amounts to basic 2 or 3 chord pop songs, the music Crystal Stilts make is certainly in no hurry to get anywhere. A good majority of the tracks on these two records resemble morbid waltzes, as singer Brad Hargett growls in a low baritone not far off from his post-punk forebears (many will point toward Ian Curtis, perhaps rightfully), while his band lays down deceptively simple organ, guitar and bass riffs. It's spookily effective music, and while the homogeneous sound of the group, especially pronounced on Alight, can easily slip into the background, close listens reveal little instrumental flourishes that should make repeat listens mandatory. So it's a grower in the most basic sense, where full respect won't be rewarded until prolonged exposure helps the fog of sound dissipate into clear intentions.

This works as both an advantage and a disadvantage for Crystal Stilts, as the less than memorable songs scattered throughout Alight tend to blur into the whole rather than stand apart. The EP kept things interesting with varying sound quality and stripped down arrangements, whereas Alight applies the same wall-of-sound tactic across the majority of its 11 tracks (save the beautifully spare closer "City in the Sea"). So songs like "Crystal Stilts", "Prismatic Room" and "Shattered Shine" all stick out like sore thumbs, as they are easily the most developed and well executed (EP standout "Crippled Croon" unfortunately didn't make the full-length cut). On the other end of the spectrum though are tracks like "Graveyard Orbit" and "Departure" which can float by unnoticed if you've not fully given your attention over to the music. So the whole of Alight of the Night doesn't exactly add up to more than the sum of it's interesting parts, but as the handful of standout tracks here proves, the pieces are certainly there for a great album in the future. In the meantime though, there is plenty on Alight of the Night to get excited about.

Highlights: "Crystal Stilts", Prismatic Room", "Shattered Shine"

"Shattered Shine"

"Prismatic Room"

"The City in the Sea"

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