The video to “Star Crawl” floods gorgeous natural landscapes with unsettling day-glo colors, vibrations of orange, lime-green, magenta and yellow twitching in time with a lurching, chugging beat. Bears lumber by, birds preen, members of the band frolic in ocean waves, but everything is phosphorescently, surreally off. It’s a pretty good metaphor for Nature Noir, the Crystal Stilts’ third full-length. As the band has solidified and gained confidence in playing together, its tunes have moved away from pure atmosphere and closer to jangle pop, 1960s psychedelia, even folk. But even as the outlines get more recognizable, the colors still pulsate with oddity. These songs are the Crystal Stilts most pop tunes ever, but they are still tinged with weird overtones, spooky dissonances and cavernous, moisture-dripping reverberation.
The album starts in pure murk and twilit gloom with an opener (“Spirit in Front of Me” ) that would have fit comfortably on dank, goth-y Alight of Night. Yet just after “Star Crawl” it kicks up hard towards the light, with rocking, almost light-hearted “Future Folklore,” the sunny mellow yellows of “Sticks and Stones,” the Spector-ish boom and jangle of “Memory Room.” On tracks like these, Brad Hargett’s echo-wreathed voice is pretty much the only spectral element. Everything else is clear jangle, clean snare, sharp-edged rockabilly guitar solo. “Future Folklore” has the giddy enthusiasm of a Kelley Stoltz tune, turned slightly surreal in a black light, while “World’s Gone Weird” channels the sitar-ish eastern-isms of Brian Jonestown Massacre, as heard from the bottom of a deep well.
The knock on Crystal Stilts from the beginning was that they were better on record than live, that the carefully layered overdubs that made up Alight of Night could not be replicated on the fly. Yet now, two full-band albums in, there’s an organic resilience in their sound, a give and take, a bit of unpremeditated euphoria. The first time you listen to “Future Folklore,” you want to hear it in a bar; it sounds like it would grow, rather than fall apart, in performance. This is a band that has always been able to manipulate smoke and shadows, that has had no problem, ever, in making its music sound cool. Nature Noir feels like it’s got a bit more substance and structure, a natural foundation under the otherworldly sheen.
DOWNLOAD: “Star Crawl” “Future Folklore”