Crystal Stilts, Widowspeak

Crystal Stilts

Back in 2008, a lot of heads turned to clock Crystal Stilts’ Alight Of Night, their first album after a string of here-today-gone-tomorrow singles and EPs. It wasn’t exactly a surprise – Crystal Stilts felt like part of a new age dawning, of underground collectives and random, crazy groups who’d rediscovered the joys of noise-pop and set about creating their own Creations – but there was something unique about Crystal Stilts, something hermetic yet gorgeous about the world they created. With their new album, In Love With Oblivion, they stretch things further still, honing their songcraft, indulging their more strung-out sides, full of elliptical verses and perfectly chiming guitars, cranky pop organs and the punkest of rhythms. It’s a perfect blend of pop smarts and beguiling experiment.

Converging in the quiet of South Florida, Brad Hargett and JB Townshend dreamt a perfect pop group and then set about recreating the dream. Along the way to New York, they collected members, record labels, a cultish fanbase, raves from the likes of Dean Wareham and Stephen Pastel, and (from across the seas, at least) the kind of mystique even the ‘know-everything’ glaze of the modern ‘net-age couldn’t debase. I still listen to their records and wonder about the people behind the songs – and this does not happen very often nowadays. Their record covers are mysterious two-tone ciphers. They know the importance of a good font. In short, they sound and look like a group you want to be in.

And as with all good pop bands, Crystal Stilts not only look cool and sound great: they also listen hard. I recently read an interview where JB said his favourite show of ’09 was The Mad Scene, which made me double-take – who else cares so much about Hamish Kilgour’s other best group? But if Crystal Stilts are scholarly about pop, they don’t wear their knowledge heavily. The best songs on In Love With Oblivion are effortless, rapturous – “Through The Floor” burns on fevered energy; “Silver Sun” kisses the air with a beautiful stream of jangle guitar; “Alien Rivers” is a spooked, psychedelic requiem, roughly Opal’s Happy Nightmare Baby + 14 Iced Bears’ “Mother Sleep” x Victor Dimisich Band. (But that was my math, not theirs.) “Precarious Stair” is my favourite girl-pop-song-not-actually-fronted-by-a-girl since, I dunno, “Just Like Honey”.

A friend of mine walked into my flat when “Half A Moon” was playing and for a split-second asked if it was The Damned’s “Smash It Up”, which made me chuckle. Then he looked at the speakers and wondered what exactly he was hearing. Hey, cool – it’s always good to take people by surprise. Well, that’s what Crystal Stilts do with In Love With Oblivion – take all of those expectations you have and quietly, unassumingly, but determinedly turn them upside down, make you listen differently the glorious haze of pop they pour out of their bloodied veins. A buzzing organ, some slack-strung guitars, a clutch of Moe Tucker dreams and some black tambourines rarely sounded this alive. – JADE PILLAR

Widowspeak has grown up in a lot of ways.The band’s third album, All Yours, is one that could only come from Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas: a honed and elegant interweaving of dream-pop and slowcore rock and roll, easygoing melodies and dusty, snaking guitars. It’s also their finest release to date: ten beautiful songs that are refreshingly straightforward yet built from the same well-chosen and deftly-used tools the band has always worked with.

All Yours is ambitious without feeling labored-over, anchored in the strengths of Widowspeak’s consistent influences. There are those familiar Morricone-come-Verlaine guitar passages, moody and country-tinged instrumentation, watery tremolo, velvety stacked vocals. You can hear Molly’s affection for The Cranberries and The Sundays in the wavering melodies of “Dead Love” or “Girls”, and Rob’s adoration of George Harrison and Robbie Robertson in his brilliantly economical guitar playing. The result is an aesthetically diverse and profoundly nostalgic sound; indebted to past eras without feeling dated.

Since they came on the scene five years ago, the band has seen many permanent changes: new lineups, new environments. Instead of bringing additional permanent members into the fold after the departure of its founding drummer, the band was whittled down to a duo, a lineup that has remained constant since 2012. After releasing a second LP, Almanac, and The Swamps EP (both in 2013), Molly and Rob left Brooklyn for the (quite literally) greener pastures of the Catskills/Hudson Valley region. They found a house they could play music in. They got a dog. And they took their damn time making All Yours. For one, the conceptual process of writing Almanac and The Swamps had been creatively draining. They focused on other things: Molly went back to school; Rob took a job at a Catskills hotel. They wrote leisurely, from shared voice memos and late night jams in the living room. As a result of writing down what came naturally, without any overarching vision, the lyrics on All Yours are largely unadorned, the songs connected only by the forgivingly vague theme of “moving on”. Appropriately, the band chose to work again with Jarvis Taveniere, who produced their self-titled debut in 2011. They also enlisted him and drummer Aaron Neveu (both of whom play in Woods) as the studio rhythm section. The presence of Taveniere and Neveu contributes a groove that wasn’t there previously, and there’s a few other new things: the swell of strings at critical moments, and for the first time, voices beyond Molly’s own. We finally get to hear Rob sing in the earnestly laid-back “Borrowed World.” Members of psych outfit Quilt contribute harmonies and keys throughout the record, most notably in “My Baby’s Gonna Carry On”, and “Cosmically Aligned”. Perhaps All Yours is so refreshing because it’s a return to form. It’s a record that feels as effortlessly unplanned as their debut, that serves to capture a moment rather than create one.

Pure Bathing Culture

To hear Sarah Versprille and Daniel Hindman tell it, their Portland, OR-based band Pure Bathing Culture has always evolved naturally and at a steady pace. "That's really the path we've been on as a band, always putting one foot in front of the other as opportunities presented themselves," Versprille said. "The music just revealed itself to us as we kept going."

But for Pure Bathing Culture's second album, Pray for Rain, the band has taken a big leap forward. You can hear it from the opening notes of their anthemic title track: in Hindman's clean yet serpentine guitar lines interacting with the live rhythm section and Versprille's lucid vocals cutting through it all as she asks: "Is it pleasure? Is it pain? Did you pray for rain?" Pray for Rain is the sound of the group confidently taking a step up to the next level and finding their footing as a true band.

"We needed to make a big step and our version of that was to cut the cord from our previous albums," Hindman said of the process, then confesses: "I was nervous all the way through. It was nerve-wracking and almost antagonizing at times."

The roots of Pure Bathing Culture stretch back to 1999, when Versprille and Hindman befriended one another on the first day of freshman orientation at William Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. A decade later, they became bandmates when they both joined Vetiver for their Sub-Pop albums Tight Knit and The Errant Charm. It was while playing in Vetiver that Pure Bathing Culture emerged as its own entity.

"Dan was working on some instrumentals that he would make on a looping pedal," Sarah said. "One night he was out and I just listened to this loop and wrote some lyrics to it. He came home and I showed it to him. We laughed at first, as we didn't have some grand plan to start a band. It just happened naturally." That song "Lucky One," wound up in the hands of Richard Swift, who encouraged the duo to keep writing. "Richard pushed us along and became an inspiration," Dan said. Swift wound up producing the band's first EP and dreamy full-length, 2013's Moon Tides at his National Freedom studio.

From there, PBC evolved from simply being the product of Versprille and Hindman writing songs in their own home to hitting the road as a full touring band. "Sarah and I conceptualize music and then write so it's a pretty fragile state," Hindman said. "Playing live was a huge change for us."

When it came time to write and record their follow-up to Moon Tides, the duo knew what they didn't want. "We didn't gravitate towards someone making indie dream-pop records," Dan said. That was when producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans, Angel Olsen, The Walkmen) reached out to the band and invited them to come record with him in his Dallas, TX studio.

"John pushed us to not make clichés, to not play into the style of other bands," Dan said. The challenges came right away as Congleton pressed the group into unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable territory in the studio. "He tricked me with the guitars on the album," Dan said. "We got the basic tracks down and he asked me to do scratch guitar and then John wouldn't let me go back and do the guitars again. He refused to do any layering."

As a result, everything on Pray for Rain is pretty much as Pure Bathing Culture actually sounds, all analog gear, with virtually no plug-ins or effects added afterwards, no hiding behind multiple layers. "There aren't a lot of tricks; What you hear is naturally what's there," Dan said.

It was a taxing yet ultimately rewarding experience when the album was completed. "It was shocking to hear what the finished product was," Sarah said. "It was like being in a vortex and then we came out with this record." She adds with a laugh something John Congleton told her when all was said and done: "You were very brave."

Sarah summarizes the Pray for Rain experience as one of "stepping into the realm of discovering who we are as a band and as songwriters," echoing a theme of the album itself, the process of change and transition. "You can find the best version of yourself in those hardest moments," she said. To which Dan adds: "You have to be backed up against the wall in order to really feel those feelings and respond to them." Pray for Rain is the sound of Pure Bathing Culture transforming from who they were to who they will be, of finding their way, ready to take steps both small and momentous on their musical path.

Zachary Cale

Zachary Cale is a songwriter originally hailing from the small town of Enon, Louisiana. His music ranges from lyrical folk balladry and American primitive inspired guitar instrumentals to experiments in popular song forms.

Over the span of 6 years he has released four full length albums, Outlander Sessions (2005), Walking Papers (2008), a full band rock record See-Saw (2008) under the name Illuminations, and most recently the critically acclaimed Noise of Welcome (2011). He has toured extensively throughout the U.S. and in Europe, often performing alone with only an acoustic guitar, but has been known to perform with a revolving cast of musicians whom he calls The Rain Band.

Upon the release of his sophomore album Walking Papers Cale was described by New Jersey's, WFMU as a "songwriter's songwriter" with a writing style comparable to the greats like Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, and Leonard Cohen. In concert his melodically complex guitar playing has been compared to Neil Young and Bert Jansch with nods to pre-war Piedmont and Ragtime players such as Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi John Hurt. In a full band setting Cale has been known to strap on an electric, adopting a style and delivery that flies closer to country-tinged rock songwriters such as Alex Chilton, Ray Davies and Tom Petty.

Since the release of Noise of Welcome Cale has toured the U.S., completed his first European tour including performances at the No Mean City Festival (Glasgow), the Incubate Festival (Netherlands), Festival de Pilar (Spain) and Reeperbahn Festival (Germany), released a new 7″ single on Dull Knife Records, performed at the End of the Road Festival in the UK sharing stages with artists like Robyn Hitchcock, Justin Townes Earle and Deer Tick, and completed another successful European tour sharing dates with The Black Swans and Six Organs of Admittance.

2013 will see the release of Blue Rider via Electric Ragtime / All Hands Electric on September 24th in the USA and on Sept. 9 via JellyFant in Europe.

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