While it was a bit of an odd choice for Force Publique to open for a reverb-drenched indie pop band, Cassie McNeil and James Wayne's industrial-tinged goth pop sounded as good as it did when we last caught the duo a month ago. They've already got some solid songwriting chops, and McNeil's dramatic vocals and Wayne's noisy synth work make for a sound that fits very well in a year that's seen Ladytron release a best-of album and the goth revival hit full swing. The duo doesn't have much of a stage presence yet, but that seems likely to come soon.
Overcasters came next, with a set that revealed a band in a bit of an odd place. The group's expansive rock and roll, with its fussed-over guitar sound -- Kurt Ottaway and John Nichols each brought multiple guitars and reasonably sizable pedal boards on stage -- recalls the more rocking end of shoegaze, while hints of bluesiness and Ottaway's everyman vocals add a bit of a bar-rock feel. But while the band rocked out earnestly, and while Ottaway and Nichols coaxed plenty of pretty noise from their gear, the songs were committed neither to hooks nor atmosphere quite enough to be engaging.
The artwork for the new Crystal Stilts album, In Love With Oblivion, describes the band's sound about as well as artwork can: The outer sleeve is a drawing of a starry sky, and the inner sleeve is a swatch of paisley. Though the two bands don't actually sound much alike, Crystal Stilts's approach is basically the one the Jesus and Mary Chain debuted over 25 years ago: Take '60s pop hooks, bury them under an ocean of reverb and fuzz, and see if they still emerge.
But where the the Jesus and Mary Chain recalled Phil Spector, Crystal Stilts evokes a whole host of other '60s signifiers -- Velvet Underground, early psychedelia, Johnny Cash. And then there are Brad Hargett's vocals, which sound like Paul Banks singing from the far end of a tunnel and are primarily responsible for the music's ghostly vibe.
Crystal Stilts's new album is cleanly produced enough to call into question the lo-fi tag the band often gets, but last night's set seemed to seek out just how deeply those hooks could get buried and still work. The answer: pretty damn deep. The band was incredibly loud, the bass and reverb were turned up to eleventy, and not a single word of Hargett's vocals could be discerned, but still the catchiness of standouts like "Through the Floor" and "Shake the Shackles" came through.
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Which is not to say that Crystal Stilts should have just dispensed with the racket and played its songs; the band knows how to use noise and hooks to complement each other, and this approach works even better at stupid volume levels. Case in point: Lengthy dirge "Alien Rivers," a semi-skippable slog on record, made perfect sense in the thick soup of reverb and bass.
The Brooklyn quintet has been known to be a bit distant on stage, and it wasn't exactly chatty, but Hargett made for a quietly charismatic frontman, bobbing back and forth on his left and right feet, his poofy curls of hair and blue windbreaker-ish jacket belying the haunted tone of his vocals. Keyboardist Kyle Forrester made one of the better dumb jokes about the altitude that I've heard from a touring band: After guitarist JB Townsend broke a string, Forrester said, "Guitar strings and cakes: You have to treat both differently at altitude."
A brief discussion of high-altitude baking ensued, and then the band returned to bathing us in its glorious sound, leaving our ears ringing with nostalgia for a decade most of us weren't alive for, a decade on which Crystal Stilts has given us a surprisingly fresh take.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: None in particular. I like In Love With Oblivion, but I hadn't caught up with Crystal Stilts until recently. Random Detail: Crystal Stilts borrowed a bass rig from Overcasters and a projector from Force Publique. Way to share, folks! By the Way: Does anybody else think that Brad Hargett looks like a taller, skinnier version of Herzog actor Bruno Schleinstein? You know, the guy from Stroszek and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser?