Monday, April 9, 2012

Gig: Crystal Stilts

Crystal Stilts (Actual Water / Les Fräuleins)

Sneaky Dee's. Sunday, May 22, 2011.

It's sorta interesting that two-piece bands, even when — or especially when — playing minimalist/abrasive music, tend to counter that with a strict visual sensibility.1 I don't know if the stripped-down rigour of the two piece corresponds with design-school aspirations, but Les Fräuleins certainly felt conceptually mulled-over, and their visual presentation was one of their more distinct elements. Setting up, there was as much time dedicated to their fluorescent lights as there were to their guitars, and though some were laid flat on the stage floor, they also had some that were set into repurposed guitar cases, opened up and leaning against the gear on stage.

Also playing together in the more shoegaze-y Beliefs, Patrick McCormack2 and Jesse Crowe bring a low-slung minimal churn to this side project, mostly composed of two guitars, ipod drum tracks and a lot of volume. Drum machine-era JAMC, a less pop-inclined Raveonettes or a de-psychedelicized Moon Duo come to mind here. McCormack (who sang as well throughout) switched to a bass for a few songs, though that didn't actually change the overall sound very much.

The songs traded in a sort of numbing regularity, which is probably not a universal selling point, but can be pretty compelling when they get in the right groove. I got the feeling that this is a bit of a pleasant diversion for the pair, given that they were selling their records on a PWYC basis and their main online presence seems to be a semi-abandoned myspace profile. But so far as I know, they are still a going concern and are worth checking out.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The "flower punk with no lack of heaviosity" of Actual Water had really clicked with me the first time I saw 'em, and their alchemy of pop structure and buzzing noise felt like a world-beater.3 As so often happens, tactical moves seemed to drag momentum down a bit, and there was a longer-than-expected post-release gestation for their The Paisley Orchard album. Originally self-released in 2010, it was picked up by Unfamiliar, leaving the album in a bit of limbo prior to its wider re-release in 2012.4

But at this moment, the band were powerfully possessing the songs and the hard-edged 12-string sound, leading off their set with a version of "The Situation" that was notably cleaner and less-distorted than the album version, revealing the jangly sock-hopper underneath. If it weren't for singer Tony Price's 12-string work, this song would be a lot like, say, White Wires.

That said, after the first couple songs, Price picked up the 6-string as the band tackled both sides of their "She's a Priest"/"Latoya" single, and switching out the Rickenbacker didn't radically change the band's sound. These ones are a bit more overt in borrowing from punk's velocity and no-frills arrangements — perhaps owing to the influence of producer Ben Cook — but most of the band's songs are still done in well under three minutes.

The band was really firing on all cylinders for this set, hitting just the right tone of jagged imperfection and rock'n'roll joy, and getting a little noisier on "Pencil-Legged" and "Caroline Ave.", a couple numbers from 2008's Double Negatives, and after that the awesome la-la-la-la-la-la chorus of "Brighton" encapsulated pretty much everything excellent about this band.

it's reductive to just call them jangle-pop revivalists, cut as that is with so much more, like closer "Vari Baby"'s 80's power pop-isms. It's probably more on point to think that the specific musical signifiers they're playing with here — like the casual but carefully-curated JD look of their blazers, leather jackets and boots — aren't the core of what they do so much as one of a series of experiments in pop production. Given the amount of time they've been playing behind this material, it's no surprise that in more recent shows the band is moving beyond the 12-string sound that was at its height here. It wouldn't be surprising to see them re-emerge in another guise altogether.

Listen to a track from this set here.

I had last seen Crystal Stilts in 2008, in what I thought was a so-so performance that didn't measure up to their debut album. This would turn out to be the inverse of that show, as I came in less-enamoured with follow-up album In Love with Oblivion, but a superb performance would give me the impetus to revisit it and realize its strengths.

There was a different drummer than last time around, but he was still employing a stand-up kit.5 The band was also obscured by flickering, abstract-y projections, which went well with their amped-up psychedelic haze-punk.

They started off, like the album, with a rising overture of sorts leading into "Sycamore Tree", with JB Townsend's guitar line rubbing against Kyle Forester's keyboards which added some cosmic trippiness to counter the jittery flinching around it. And at the centre of it all was vocalist Brad Hargett and his baritone croon, intoning, "I want to know why!"

Hargett embodied the angry bleakness of the lyrics — look at that album title again — looking mostly undemonstrative in a tightly collared jacket, zipped all the way up. A slightly discomfiting look, Hargett appeared like a houseguest that comes in but won't take off his coat and won't sit down, looming over the hosts and standing around the living room rambling on about graveyards.

As Hargett cycled through various shades of apparent disinterest in the proceedings around him, the task of bantering with the crowd was handled by keyboard player Forester, who spent some time asking the crowd about the nature of the May long weekend. In turn, the dancefloor was quite packed in up front with a very into-it, dance-y crowd.

After "Through the Floor", the band dipped back to debut full-length Alight of Night for "Crystal Stilts", which came off much more sprightly without all the layers of reverb-y murk that are on the recorded version, though it was still opaque enough to illustrate lyrical sentiments like "we're courting dreams / we're snorting dreams / distorting dreams".

I rather dug "Silver Sun", which had some of the same implied jangle that Actual Water had brought to the table. But here, that was one ingredient mushed together with a crushed-up valium and, say, an early Chills vibe. And after the rather-excellent "Shake the Shackles", I realized that this set was just getting better and better — they were playing with the dialed-in-ness of a band at the end of a long tour. Main set closer "Prometheus at Large" stretched out a bit, and "Blood Barons" in the encore had a punk floyd sort of breakdown.

Live, the music all comes together as a razor-sharp, stripped-down coiled psychedelia. Quick songs with downer lyrics — even "Love is a Wave", which sounds like it might offer some sunny sentiments, doesn't: "Love is a wave / Hate is included / Sometimes my angels may feel prostituted". So even if the band were a little static on stage, it was riveting stuff, and an excellent set.

Right after the show I posted a track here — and now you can also check out another one here.

1 The red and white aesthetic of The White Stripes is the obvious example here, but closer to home, there's also the meticulous layout of Japandroids' releases that run counter to their unkempt freedom rock (and a top-notch variety of t-shirts, to boot!) as well as the typographic fastidiousness of The Famines out of Edmonton.

2 McCormack is also in Neon Windbreaker.

3 The pop power and forward-looking retro flourishes are surely also an influence on Slim Twig in his recent return to playing with a band and increasing experimentation with pop structure.

4 The Paisley Orchard still seems unusually difficult to obtain online right now; you can sample a couple songs at their bandcamp but the whole thing seems elusive to legitimately find, though Unfamiliar claims to be working on that.

5 Frankie Rose was still in the band the last time I saw 'em. Keegan Cooke, her replacement, was also absent at this show due to border issues, with a fill-in only identified as "Shades" in his stead.

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