By Vadim Rizov
NYFF kept me away from "Indie 500" again; sad. Sadder still to report that—although suddenly there's a plethora of great albums being released (or, more accurately, that I'm finally catching up with)—what's rocked my world most of late is Jellyfish's 1993 album Spilt Milk, which sounds like the punchline to some kind of prototypical record-snob joke about obscure bands with horrible names. I've been looking out for this for a while; Jellyfish's rotating cast included Jon Brion on this album when Jason Falkner stepped out. Brion's since become one of the only film-score names anyone knows, but Falkner is almost as talented, one of those behind-the-scenes movers and shakers whose multi-instrumental talents means he's one of the rare guys who can play every part on his albums. In his spare time, he's a session/touring musician for people like Beck, Aimee Mann and Glen Campbell (!). All involved were part of the Pop Underground scene, a term which still makes me gag a little when typing, but basically involves a more melodically complex approach to '70s power-pop à la Big Star. Unfortunately, college radio preferred the Elephant 6 collective for their pop needs, which means I'll have to keep insisting In The Aeroplane Over The Sea isn't nearly as good as everyone thinks until my dying day.
Anyway, I love this stuff and Spilt Milk is some kind of genius missing link. This is an album that truly lives up to the inevitable reference points to triangulate by; in this case, hysterical multi-tracked vocals and vicious guitar solos straight from Queen alternate with dreamy harmonies and harpsichords from Brian Wilson's vintage playbook. "Hush" opens things in the latter mode before crashing into "Joining A Fan Club," the kind of massive song that's either overbearing or exhilarating, depending on where you're sitting. "Sebrina, Paste and Plato" has a kids' choir and a Fountains of Wayne-bouncy chorus. Amazingly, Jellyfish appear to have landed on MTV in the middle of the grunge era (no, they did not prosper), as the appropriately trippy video for "New Mistake" indicates.
About that grunge thing: obviously Jellyfish broke at the wrong moment (though it continues to amaze me that this supremely accessible genre continually meets with complete indifference from the American public). But vocalist/drummer Andy Sturmer seems to have been acutely aware of the situation, which feeds into the surprisingly above-average lyrics. Check out the fierce "The Ghost At Number One," with its titular ghost "shooting up his poison." Cobain also makes a lyrical cameo on the last track, the 6-minute-plus barn-burner "Brighter Day," which absolutely nails its bid for "A Day In The Life" status. Key lines here: "Can't you see that you can come as you are, as you were / If you prefer you can change." (Sturmer sings the same vocal line in the same key no less.) Sly rebuke or tribute? Who knows.
Despite his CSNY appearance, Sturmer is blessed with the kind of clear, bright voice that nowadays would probably have him conscripted into some horrid emopunk band before he'd landed the first snare hit. On the gorgeous "Bye Bye Bye" (you should watch this video to revel in the band's retro-tastic appearance), Jellyfish create one of those gorgeous songs that's too acute to be truly sappy. The chorus might be a simple reconciliation—"singing bye bye bye bye bye bye bye, cuz I've come to take you home"—but it's earned with the bittersweet line "they both think back to long ago, when thoughts of them both growing old had given them the gray hairs they deserve," which is worth any half-a-dozen New Yorker stories. (Either that, or out-of-context lyrics will read really maudlin when, uh, out of context.) Grab it all from this lovely blog, which appears to be sadly defunct.
Enough retro-frippery. The Walkmen have returned with You & Me, which is correctly being hailed as their best album. I've always found The Walkmen impressive but intimidating in the past. Like TV On The Radio, The Walkmen are studio pack rats who need their own studio to produce their sound, making it clear that how they record is just as (if not more) important to them as song structure. Their obsessive fascination with guitar tones in particular is kind of fascinating: they really want to hollow out the space around their obsessive mic-ing, letting you hear the exact texture of what they're doing. Then they add on organs and/or horns, and sometimes the full band, but you're always aware of the space around the instruments. Some people, of course, will never forgive them for never following up on the full-on assault of "The Rat," which is fair (it's their most immediate song) but also pointless. Another deal-breaker has tended to be Hamilton Leikhauser's vocals, which practically define "Dylan-esque." Which frankly doesn't bother me: maybe he really can't sing any other way, or maybe it's his equivalent of what the Walkmen do to their guitars, but it's a constant. He's certainly not stealing Dylan's lines, which is all I really ask.
The fuzz has folded from murk to mystery: opener "Dónde está la Playa" has a nice counterpoint going between low, tympani-like toms and the spare guitar chords above them, the gap between the two creating not just space but a sense of scope. The Walkmen are now building drama through something other than playing their guitars furiously, and it suits them. As usual, I have a hard time telling the songs apart from memory, but isolated passages stick in my head: e.g. the upwards organ swells leading the bridge in "In The New Year." But the absolute highlight is "Long Time Ahead Of Us," an unabashedly gorgeous (and yes, I suppose sappy) ballad. The Walkmen add a new trick to their increasing sonic arsenal of warmth: horns, yes, but also piano strings being swiped in a way that makes them sound like a harp stolen from The Flaming Lips. The Lips and the Walkmen in the same sentence! Will wonders never cease? The Walkmen are still a little abstract and intimidating, but they're increasingly moving towards the inevitable movement where they make a straight pop album (they're Nilsson fans, c'mon) and lose everyone's interest. I'm psyched.
Things I don't understand but would like to, as it would make me much cooler: Crystal Castles. Their self-titled debut was, I'm informed, all the rage at parties I didn't go to earlier this summer. Things kick off with "Untrust Us," an extremely pleasant dose of electronica mysterioso. [NB: this video is actually kind of cool as a mash-up of Ratcatcher's aesthetic with Requiem For A Dream editing. Either that or I'm getting senile.] I'll actually concur with Pitchfork just this once: "the thing's called 'Untrust Us' (natch) and by the next one, they're making good on that claim." It would've been too simple for Crystal Castles to just please me.
Instead, what they do is this whole other thing wherein, a lot of the time, vocalist Alice Glass screams in a vaguely sexual/Karen O-ish fashion that I am quite frankly very tired of. Right now, for example, I'm making one last token cycle through the album, and I find that a song called "Love And Caring," of course, has Alice screaming her little heart out in a treble register through a muffled mic that makes her sound like a frustrated Strokes imitator. I presume that her yelping and frequent breathing is supposed to register aggression, sexual power, or something more or less confrontational that should be adrenalizing. The music mostly consists of little glitches and drum pounds that sound, to my admittedly untrained ears, like the most generic indie dance-rock ever. I have no idea, for example, why "1991" is called that, because it doesn't really connote the year to me; "Courtship Date" sounds vaguely warm and Justice-y, but the title still seems like an unhelpful placeholder. I guess I've heard too much of this crap at parties or whatever to really be able to tell what makes Crystal Castles stand out. It makes me feel old, but I wish they would calm the fuck down and not worry about being so "confrontational." They sound like 13-year-olds trashing open night at a sloppy art gallery.
There is much more to spit out opinions on, but I fear it'll have to wait til next week. This may be weekly for a while as I catch up. Stay tuned.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, among others.