Have Crystal Stilts been cut down to size? After the woozy frenetic rock that dominated their 2011 album In Love With Oblivion, the answer can only be ‘yes’. Toning down the raucous noise and settling into a rather comfortable lockstep on their third album sees the five-strong Brooklyn band ditch the sonic boundary pushing of their hazy and distorted blues-based rock. Gone is the chaotic energy of yore; it’s been swapped for a more comfortable pair of dirge-like mid-tempo slippers and the well-chewed pipe of the band’s slow-motion crooner.
Which is a shame. The most obvious casualty in this sonic reshuffle is hearing organist/pianist Kyle Forester subjected to the impenetrable, crackling background. Rather than blasting his way through the quintet’s barrelhouse burners, he’s subjected to providing a blur of moody ambience and twinkling the ivories way back in the mix. And as the album’s tempo slows and the band’s fuzzed-out sound gets more lethargic, it truly puts the ‘dead’ in Brad Hargett’s deadpan baritone delivery. Just listen to how the surreal jangling pop of Darken The Door almost falls apart when the pace slackens, leaving Hargett nowhere to hide, his echo-laden delivery sounding truly lost.
However, repeated listens show there is a method to the madness. Take the opener Spirit In Front Of Me. It boasts a superbly understated yet killer stutter-step drum fill that single-handedly pushes the murky song along. Or Star Crawl which relies on a nasty, clipped surf guitar riff followed by a blast of cinematic strings to nail the bridge into place. And it turns from groovy to downright catchy on the upbeat Future Folklore as the track speeds by in a rush of cowbell licks while the Kinks-esque guitar mash-up sets the stage for Hargett to drone in sinister Biblical fashion: “Back to the underworld, back to the sea/ Back to the garden, just you and me”.
The limits of Hargett’s voice are clear on Sticks and Stones. He sings in a more traditional way and it’s pushed forward in the mix, with fewer cloudy effects, which serve to show off his rather limited range and bland tone. Compare it with his subterranean half-spoken, half-sung drawl on Worlds Gone Weird and it presents the band with a question on whether they want to follow the path of a tidy indie pop or nocturnal garage fuzz – with the latter clearly the more effective model for the New Yorkers. Strangely, the title track is neither. With an intricate doubling of its countrified guitar line, picked with impressively clear precision and saddled with little distortion, it feels like the only hint of where the band could head in search of a greener pasture. It displays maturity in its whimsical pace with Hargett’s submerged voice carrying the woozy tune. And thankfully, Forester’s organ finally gets a cameo deep in the chorus.
Perhaps chalking up Nature Noir as a transitional album is the most accurate way to describe it, as the band presents a few contradictory facets to their sound and identity across the 10 tunes, without settling on any one in particular. But seeing as the band support Deerhunter on their American tour this month, it would suggest their favoured approach will continue to be scuzzy ramshackle rock leaving Hargett’s one-dimensional singing to provide drama and colour, rather than anything more profound. And when it works, notably the first half of the album, it cements Nature Noir’s reputation as a genuinely rollicking take on psychedelic garage rock of a bygone era. When it doesn’t work, as on the second half of the album (minus the title track), it begs the question about whether the Stilts should have abandoned their visceral rock in the first place.