For a bunch of Brooklynites playing noise-pop, Crystal Stilts has been pretty quiet since their critically acclaimed debut album, Alight of Night, dropped in 2008. Their latest offering, In Love With Oblivion, is pretty much the same as what we heard back then: Some catchy hooks and solid, well-layered pop rock buried in derivative synth techniques. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there’s another, fatal flaw that prevents Oblivion from ever getting off the ground.
Oblivion‘s first track, “Sycamore Tree,” gave me reason to cock my eyebrow–its initial whistling wind effects and haphazard piano sounds like a poor attempt to recreate the last minute of “A Day in the Life”–but given some time to develop, the band proves that it can make the simplest of three-chord progressions interesting. It certainly doesn’t hurt to throw in a little synth organ or mandolin, as I’m convinced I hear on “Precarious Stair.” Guitarist JB Townsend and keyboardist Kyle Forester are pretty tremendous together, lending what can only be called a sneaky enthusiasm to the essentially bare-bones instrumentation at work here.
Still, there’s something stopping the band from playing nicely with each other, and that something is Brad Hargett’s vocals. Bearing a healthy, droning baritone voice that has made him a darling of the New York post-pop scene, it may very well be that Hargett has talent; I wouldn’t know, because every single song on Oblivion is infected with his apparent lust for echo chambers within echo chambers within echo chambers.
Some tracks are worse than others, but overall, it’s completely unreasonable to expect anyone to ever understand more than a quarter of Hargett’s lyrics. This creates two problems: It makes Hargett a totally extraneous member of the band (being unintelligible might work for chestnuts like Ozzy, but there’s no excuse if you don’t have brain damage), and more importantly, it muddies up what would otherwise be some pretty fun, simple rock music.
It’s a shame that the vocals destroy Crystal Stilts’ music so completely; it’s one of the only complaints I had about Oblivion. Yes, there’s no new ground being broken here–even for the band’s own limited catalog–but it’s derivative in such a straightforward way that you wind up going along with it almost by instinct; you’re drawn in before you had a chance to realize you’ve heard this before.
Still, though they might be able to swing from hook to hook like a monkey in a meat freezer, it’s just not fun to listen to Spaceman Hargett for 43 minutes. I’ll be back when the Stilts go instrumental.