The Upshot: Dandy duo from North Carolina conjures sonic imagery both past and present via an eclectic, melodic, adventurous collection of memorable tunes.
BY FRED MILLS
Though still relatively young as a band, with two EPs released in 2015 and 2016, respectively, Mebane, NC (near Chapel Hill), duo Stray Owls seem old at heart, with an expansive, inclusive sound that dips back years, if not entire eras. That the Chapel Hill/Durham PotLuck Foundation label they are releasing their debut longplayer on bill itself as a label for “music nerds” doesn’t seem entirely coincidental. The fact that A Series of Circles was produced by veteran Tarheel studio maven Jerry Kee (Superchunk, Polvo) doesn’t seem to be random, either.
As the album unfolds, sonic ghosts of everyone from Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, and Elliott Smith seem to hover benevolently in the ether, as layered acoustic guitars and close-mic’d vocals conjure a profound intimacy, one which is also tinged with sufficient amounts of sonic looniness to prevent the listener being lulled into complacency. For example, the sing-songy folk that is “Franklin Borough” bears the tap-tap of a typewriter at one point; “Ok, Ok” incorporates some creamy mellotron lines and a momentary xylophone melody; and “Cut & Paste Time Machine” lives up to its title via a succession of tempo and tonal shifts that include, variously, fuzzed-out guitars, trilling, Andean-style flutes, choirlike harmony vocals, and a synth-strafed sonic collage.
One also imagines that contemporary avatars such as the Flaming Lips and the sheer bloody-mindedness that informs Neil Young have also informed the Stray Owls’ aesthetic. The brilliant, nearly six minutes-long “Ruin is Formal” seems to be a culmination of sorts, at once wispily anthemic yet strummily unhurried, with producer Kee’s drumming providing a jumping off point from which Scott Griffiths and Matt French can aim for the kosmiche horizon. It’s psychedelic as hell, but richly folkish, at once expansive yet ruminative, and followed as it is by the stomping, distorted, whacked-out closing track “Red Flags” (also close to six minutes), you ultimately are not just observers of the pair’s journey, but part of it.
Add to that “old at heart” notation listed above—wise beyond the years. If these owls are strays, you’ll no doubt be eager to take them in and offer shelter and sustenance.
DOWNLOAD: “Ruin Is Formal,” Ok, Ok,” “Red Flags”