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Crystal Stilts and Wavves – Bardens Boudoir, London (26.02.2008)

Photo by J. Lidgett

‘Pop will eat itself’ is an oft-used phrase in the arena of music journalism, mostly with negative connotations. But if Crystal Stilts is the proof in the pudding of such a hypothesis, pop can bloody well continue to gorge on its own, delicious self until the cows come home, for all I care. As I stood a few inches from the stage at the enticingly named but grammatically incorrect Boudoir, I was surprised that such a great band was playing at such a small venue, and for a few minutes fretted about the future of decent music. But, as my thoughts were given a touch of clarity after some alcoholic aid, I decided that, selfishly, the current state of affairs is actually a pretty decent one – great bands playing cheap, intimate gigs, although Crystal Stilts do little to take advantage of the personal nature of their surroundings, the stage only elevated from us commoners by a few inches.

As already mentioned, there’s no escaping the fact that Crystal Stilts have taken a leaf out of Joy Division’s book (the lead singer of the former even at one point doing a little dance that looked like a nod to some of Ian Curtis’s onstage rhythmic movements), lying somewhat uncomfortably between the post-punk clatter and shoegaze of the 80s and shimmering pop of late. Amidst the current trend of having to have at least some form of electronic blips creeping into a band’s sound, the Stilts take an interesting step backwards, instead plumping for no-frills basic instrumentation – the only effect pedal of any sort in view is one connected to lead singer Brad Hargett’s microphone. Never mind having to justify bringing back the sounds of bands that fizzled out long ago, they are in competition with two other groups who share the same first name! But whereas Crystal Antlers and Crystal Castles, both decent bands in their own right, bounce around their recorded material, their palpable sense of excitement propelling their tracks forward, tonight the band under scrutiny prefer to take a back seat, the vocals even harder to distinguish than they are on the album, gently nudging the songs along. Hargett may be standing in front of his fellow bandmates, but he seems to recognize his vocals as just another instrument, perhaps acknowledging that the interplay between the bass and the guitar are in fact more important when he asks the man at the soundboard to turn up every instrument except his own. It’s a breath of fresh air to see this in a world where frontmen are usually narcissistic animals; where one can see the only noticeable outcome of Nick Cave’s forthcoming remasters of already great albums being that his vocals are knocked a few decibels louder.

Wavves was an interesting choice for a support act. Neither groups claim to be Godfathers of musical innovation, but Wavves chose to strip-down their sound live, getting rid of the layers of noise that cloud his studio riffs, which was in direct contrast with Crystal Stilts, whose sound was even murkier than on their powerful debut, Alight of Night. Again, the two differed in their onstage image. Both Wavves’s music and attire was colourful, inspiring images of fun on a sunny beach, in comparison with Crystal Stilt’s notable lack of colour when they sauntered onstage, bar a semi-adventurous attempt to add a dash of jollity to their presence by the keyboardist, donning a polo shirt which elsewhere would be unremarkable but here almost looked like he could be singled out for having committed a war crime. Kyle Forester seemed to go boldly where his bandmates shyed away from musically, too. His eerie hooks on the album transmogrified into almost jazzy improvisations. The same could not be said for Frankie Rose who, playing the drums in an unorthodox manner (i.e. standing up) did little to vary the beat from song to song, her tattoo of a pair of scissors across her arm sending a signal of gloom to those who glanced to the back of the stage where she bashed away at a basic set of drums.

Despite the band’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, and a setlist that was brief and felt rushed rather than relished, it was impossible to not enjoy the atmosphere and musical swamp conjured up by a serious outfit looking on top of their game. A man to the side of the stage listened kneeling down, his eyes closed, rocking back and forth, and to an extent this does well to describe the kind of experience this music induces. The vocals may be indistinct, with only a few phrases audible, but they lodge in the back of the mind, inspiring your own interpretation of what Hargett is harking on about, his fuzzy singing mingling with the music to create some sort of dream-like ether. Imagine a Nick Drake type figure trying to compete with a backing band, the result being a ghostly celebration of all things dark and miserable. The band seem bored of their album material (probably having played it to death, this night being the last of their UK dates), and at the same time shy of their new songs, one of which was brilliant but sadly they chose not to tell us the names of any of them. For the encore Crystal Stilts bust out ‘The City in the Sea’, the refreshing closer to their album, which swoons its way through five minutes of dreamy pop, but despite calls for their eponymous track (the closest they get to Wavves’s surf-rock), ‘Crystal Stilts’ is not played. Nevertheless, the band satisfied their Alight of Night quota for the evening by playing forceful versions of ‘Prismatic Room’ and, much to the delight of the crowd, ‘The Dazzled’.

Bands such as Crystal Stilts and Wavves may find British culture peculiar, and to be honest, I can’t blame them. When someone shouts “Make them dance!” near the beginning of Wavves’s set, they are met with a puzzled look by guitarist and singer Nathan Williams, who merely replies, in what can only be described as a trans-Atlantic misunderstanding, “Kirsten Dunst?” Despite apparent difficulties between American bands and their neighbours from across the pond, we may hold the key to their success in the future. XFM DJ John Willcock, who holds a late night slot and plays the only decent selection of music on what has been laughably described as an ‘alternative’ or ‘indie-rock’ radio station has been championing Crystal Stilts recently, and announced on his show that he’d be attending the gig. Afterwards I also spot Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos who seemed to have been soaking up the doom and gloom at the Boudoir. This attention makes everything crystal clear: these guys are on the up, and if they continue to gain this sort of exposure before long they may well find themselves enjoying more mainstream success.

– B. Diamond

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