Douglas Martin needs neither stilts nor lifts.
Crystal Stilts are a band that sound flawlessly cool on paper.
1. The group’s founding members– Brooklyn-via-Florida dudes Brad Hargett and JB Townsend– have a refined sartorial aesthetic; the former has hair like Bob Dylan and wears all black while the latter wears sunglasses indoors and has hair long enough to cover his face while he’s playing.
2. The band lists most of the acts on influential New Zealand label Flying Nun as their primary influences.
3. Their debut album, Alight of Night, charmed Slumberland devotees and fringe indie listeners with their then-fresh brand of psychedelic surf-rock by-way-of Factory Records.
4. They use reverb. Lots of reverb. And Rule No. 534 of the Modern Indie-Rock Handbook says you can’t be a cool band if you don’t use reverb.
But what was fresh in 2008 becomes the day-before-yesterday’s news in 2011, and with noise-leaning-pop rounding its saturation point comes its inevitable (and somewhat elongated) backlash. With interests shifting and detractors more ready than ever to pounce on the movement, everybody’s waiting to see what these bands do next. Vivian Girls ease their way into psych-rock. Labelmates The Pains of Being Pure at Heart get off Black Tambourine’s jock long enough to hire big-name producers and create alterna-twee. Crystal Stilts’ popularity never reached that of either of the just-mentioned groups, so they had the benefit of taking their time to sojourn to the next chapter with a fraction of the pressure.
It’s both very surprising and kinda not that the two most focused songs on sophomore effort In Love With Oblivion are also the two oldest. The bouncy early-rock-n-roll of “Through the Floor” first saw life as a demo tacked onto the end of their self-titled EP carries the shuffle and swagger (no M.I.A.) that has only been hinted at before and injecting levity into Hargett‘s Ian Curtis-like doomsayer croon. “Shake the Shackles,” the band’s stellar 2010 single, is not only the best song on the album, but probably the best song Crystal Stilts have recorded to date, possessing a sense of urgency rare among both the band’s peers and successors.
But that’s not to say the newly written songs don’t carry a sense of purpose. “Precarious Stair,” “Silver Sun,” and “Flying Into the Moon” all hold the kind of shimmering jangle that would have held up nicely on Alight of Night, while opener “Sycamore Tree” is a propulsive, exciting track that throws the aforementioned Ian Curtis, obscure spaghetti westerns, and even the more upbeat moments of Elvis Presley’s early output all into a dark, dusty echo chamber. Crystal Stilts are adept at creating mood music that sounds optimal both during desperately hot days (whether the sun is beating down on your or the overcast skies spawn humidity you could choke on) and oppressively balmy nights. Their appeal doesn’t come from hair-raising lyrical moments or McCartney-esque song construction. Crystal Stilts is the score and not the soundtrack.
Still, Alight of Night was one of my favorite albums of 2008 because of its focus, because of the way they developed those mood pieces and distilled their influences into concise pop songs. In Love With Oblivion falters when the band loses focus, locking into a limp groove while Hargett’s voice meanders aimlessly, half-formed melodies oscillating over half-written instrumental parts. This mostly happens on the final quarter of the album, where the boogie and stomp of “Death is What We Live For” and “Prometheus at Large” and the catchy, organ-led chorus of “Invisible City” can’t save the songs from falling short.
Ironically, the lack of focus seems to benefit itself on the album’s most sprawling tune, “Alien Rivers,” where Hargett’s droning vocals actually bolster the song’s dark tint. The Morricone guitars and Farfisa organs weave in and out of each other while the track swells and simmers in its seven minutes and eighteen seconds, showing what happens when they take their fixation on darkness to its brink. As the noise-pop underground splinters off into a variety of directions, Crystal Stilts show with In Love With Oblivion that they may never become a marquee name in the movement, and maybe that it’s not even what they’re aiming for. They seem to be content with stretching their sound in new directions anyway, destined to be a possible “cult band that time forgot,” and the go-to group for music that sounds like a really bad acid trip.