FRINGE BENEFITS Crystal Stilts

Are they garage? Indie-rock? Nü-new wave? Let’s
let the Brooklyn-based buzzband sort things out…

 

BY JHONI JACKSON

 

            Is it better for a band to run with
one particular music scene or, instead, take the social butterfly approach as a
fringe act? Crisscrossing crowds, you’d think, would make for the kind of
versatile appeal that brings a bigger fan base. In most instances though,
that’s not the case. Appeal stretched taut can confine a band to a popularity
purgatory of sorts where growth is thwarted – or at least disadvantaged. The
Brooklyn-based Crystal Stilts fit that bill.

 

            “There’s all the bands like…In the
Red bands, Norton bands and things like that. We can kind of fit into that
scene a little bit, like maybe on the edge of it,” explains guitarist JB
Townsend. “Then we played this indie-pop festival a couple of months ago, and
we were by far the dirtiest band there – but we could still play there, you
know?”

 

 

 

 

 

            Crystal Stilts present garage-pop
under an overcast sky with its lightly layered nuances of the Pastels, Lee
Hazelwood and The Damned. It’s a combination that doesn’t rest comfortably
within any one particular scene. The four-piece can hop on a bill with Tandoori
Knights, King Khan’s side project with hillbilly-punk Bloodshot Bill, just as
well as they can open for seasoned pioneers of alt-rock like the Vaselines.
(They’ve done both.) Even the club world isn’t entirely off limits to Crystal
Stilts. Just search YouTube for “Sugarbaby,” a fun, swinging slice from the
2009 7-inch Love is a Wave for some
“stanky” proof.

 

            When multiple styles are eclipsed
within one sound, booking becomes a smoother process and the arms of a band’s
fan base extend easily into several very different groups. They aren’t
explicitly running on a punk and garage ticket – Crystal Stilts don’t really
claim any particular party. Naturally, their potential followers are a mixed
group: Lovers of New Order, ardent indie-rock fans and even garage-rock
revivalists can dig Crystal Stilts.

 

            Slumberland Records’ notes for Love is a Wave describe the sound as
combining “post-punk gloom with classic ‘60s pop and garage, Suede-ish ‘50s
buzz/twang and a dash of ‘80s jangle.” Seriously? It almost seems like Townsend
and company gathered the hippest trends in independent music, tossed ‘em all
against the wall and were left with this hackneyed mix. But somehow, the blend
isn’t boring. Crystal Stilts gracefully encompass all that portrayal claims,
and not only on Love is a Wave, but
also throughout the band’s nearly decade-long repertoire. All Slumberland
failed to fully convey is frontman Brad Hargett’s echoing, haunting vocals and
the resulting dark, romantic fog that saturates the sound.

 

            Townsend helped produce all of the
band’s releases, from 2008’s Alight of
Night
to their last LP, In Love with
Oblivion.
His input started as “over the shoulder,” he says, then gained a
firmer grip over time. That’s likely why the band’s sound has remained so
consistent. Despite a studio stint at Malborough Farms with Gary Olson, founder
of ‘90s-born alt-pop act The Ladybug Transistor, Townsend’s influence on the
four-song release reigns. (And keyboardist Kyle Forester is even a member of LT
now-he has been since 2005.)

 

            “[Olson] engineered the record and…I
basically kind of mixed it and edited,” he clarifies.

 

            Townsend’s touch seems to tower over
the frontman role, despite that Hargett writes the lyrics, which can sometimes
guide mood. The band’s varied nuances appear to be a direct product of
Townsend’s musical literacy. That’s not to say other the rest of the band isn’t
knowledgeable, of course, or that other outfits don’t also boast impressive
mental music catalogs. It’s the manner in which Townsend filters his insight
that matters.

 

            “It’s funny because a lot of times
people will misinterpret where we got something from or something like that.
They’ll think it’s one thing when it’s really another thing, which is actually
kind of cool,” Townsend ruminates. “But then, on the other hand, it’s like if
you know what every style of song is and then you’re writing a song then you’re
going to be like, ‘That sounds too much like this or that.’ I think a little
bit of ignorance or a little bit of naivety is good too.”

 

            Either Townsend underestimates
himself or purposely opts for
modesty, because that ignorance is mostly limited to contemporary releases –
and there’s only one bit of evidence to support it. Radiant Door includes a cover of the Lee Hazelwood-penned “Still as
the Night.” It’s also done on the full-length debut from Gaye Blades, a side
project of Jared Swilley of the Black Lips and Jesse Smith of Gentleman Jesse
and His Men, released via Norton Records a couple months prior to Radiant Door, a Crystal Stilts EP also
released in 2011.

 

            “They did the same song?! Really? I
didn’t know that,” Townsend confesses. He calls the coincidence “bizarre.”

 

            To be fair, the covers are very
different. Swilley’s raspy vocals add aggression and a bit of speed to the
tune, while Crystal Stilts stick to its original romantic, slow and haunting
Western feel.

 

            On “Low Profile,” Radiant Door‘s other cover, the band
takes a similar approach to interpretation. They don’t do much to alter the
tune’s original idea of a New Wave-y soundtrack to passive triumph over
adversity.

 

            “I don’t think I’ve listened to the
original since we recorded it,” Townsend says. “I haven’t really compared it. I
think [Blue Orchids’] is a little bit…less ambient maybe. It’s a little bit
more upfront sounding [than ours].”

 

            Blue Orchids singer Martin Bramah’s
nearly deadpan vocals are much like Hargett’s, albeit without the latter’s
signature echo. And though Townsend speaks more ardently about the band’s
penchant for “dark country” than he does post-punk, the Blue Orchids cut is
quite fitting. Una Baines, Blue Orchids’ original keyboardist, was reportedly
dipping into the work of George Gurdjieff, a Russian spiritual teacher whose
presented ways of living including a method that Bramah and Baines interpreted
as living inconspicuously to get by.

 

            “I made [Radiant Door] originally on a four-track and I thought it came out
sounding a little bit like Television Personalities, but it wasn’t deliberate –
just kind of the style, kind of DIY, a British DIY style song,” Townsend says.
“But it ended up being a little more lush in the end.”

 

            Townsend adds that the EP’s two
original tracks are overflow from In Love
with Oblivion,
and even the material on that LP wasn’t altogether fresh.

 

 

 

 

 

            “The songs on the second album…
[are] just as old as when we recorded the first ones, so it’s really not that
different,” Townsend reveals.

 

            He says their releases are a
“continuation,” and expects future work to “go in different directions, but the
same routes.”

 

            “There’s not going to be a record
that sounds radically different,” he confirms.

 

            Whether sticking so specifically
with that sound will help or hurt them is debatable. They’ve garnered press
from mainstream media like NBC and frequently headline tours of mid-size
venues, but Crystal Stilts certainly haven’t blown up. That’s where the
popularity purgatory comes in – it’s a pitfall of malleability. Would the band
see more success concentrating on one particular group of listeners? Or should
they carry on grazing the outermost corners of countless cliques with a
multi-faceted sound?

 

            There isn’t really a solid answer,
obviously. There’s no way to calculate such a thing, especially these days.
Illegal downloading practically nullifies sales numbers in quantifying a fan
base. And Facebook likes can’t even be considered here because Crystal Stilts
don’t promote through social media the way most bands do now.

 

             “I don’t think we’re really a band that fits
into a label image that much,” Townsend says.

 

            One of the few discernable lyrics in
“Low Profile” song is “Keep a low profile.” Essentially, that’s what Crystal
Stilts have been doing all along – and Townsend seems content with that.

 

[Photo
Credit: Erika Spring]

 

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