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Stars Like Fleas - The Ken Burns Effect

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Artist: Stars Like Fleas

Album: The Ken Burns Effect

Label: Home Tapes

Review date: Jun. 2, 2008

If they didn't create their own source material, you might think of Stars Like Fleas as documentarians, amassing vast quantities of musical reference points, rifling through them like index cards, deciding what's important and what's not and, finally, fitting them all into a cohesive, organic narrative that doesn't feel pieced together. That's my best guess as to what these two Brooklyn-based, organic-electronic artists mean by The Ken Burns Effect, but who knows? Like its predecessor Sun Lights Down on the Fence, Ken Burns lives mostly outside the realm of language and logical explication, in the intersection of grainy, sepia-toned country folk, soul trembling falsetto and free-ranging improvisatory jazz. As singer Montgomery Knott puts it, late in the album, "It's like you can't see for the words."

Stars Like Fleas, organized around Knott and co-founder Shannon Fields, works and reworks improvisatory collaboration. To begin with, the two of them bring together dozens of musicians and instruments to record two, three, four times the amount of sound that an ordinary album will hold. From there, their work consists of organization, electronic manipulation, pruning and editing, pulling all these sounds together in hallucinogenic wholes. These pieces are not always linear or predictable -- a cacophonous surge of sax and drums and strings may erupt from the most delicate collage of bells and picked guitars -- but they do have a seamless quality. You would never know, listening even to the long, free-form "Some Nettles," that it had not been planned beforehand and recorded in a continuous take.

The disc fluctuates ("varies" seems to imply too much calculation) between abstract, untethered consideration of sound to intervals of pure, luxuriant melody, often carried by Knott's flute-ish falsetto. For instance, the opening "Hoax Head" samples laughter, half-heard voices, odd blurts and blares of wind instruments and the clatter and tinkle of bells. This brief piece has hardly a jot of melody in it, only rhythm and accidental chord and discord, yet it sets the stage for "Karma House", one of the disc's most lyrically lovely cuts. Here Knott sings with wistful clarity, his voice fluttering over a melody that climbs effortlessly and with disarming simplicity up scale-toned steps. Yet underneath the tranquility, a difficulty bubbles up in sudden rushes of fractious drums and bursts of detuned saxophone. It feels very much like Akron/Family's first album, melodic yet impacted with noise, pieced out of scraps and samples, yet luminously whole.

Still it's the mid-section of this album that's most impressive, where songs coalesce into shimmering masses of otherworldly melody. "I Was Only Dancing" is arguably the best of these, drifting into focus out of the gentlest scrapes and strums of stringed instruments, the subtlest drum rhythms, the breathiest, most glancing vocals. The cut gains momentum slowly, without losing its country folk softness, a banjo intertwining with fiddle flourishes. And then, out of nowhere comes an ecstatic pop chorus, the voices altered and blurred until words disappear, transmuted into pure sunny joy. "Berbers in Tennis Shoes" is just as memorable, its diffident lyrics arising from a pulsing electronic rhythm. The song has a buoyant lift to it, born out by the upward sweep of the strings, the tribal, tonal pounding of drums, the jazz-like swell of trombone. And yet, here, where the lyrics can be understood, they are wistful, a boy asking a girl, "Oh why can't you care at all?"

These songs are bracketed by more instrumentally-centered cuts, "Early Riser" with its typewriter percussion and intermittent discord, "Toast Suren" with its tense and enveloping string crescendos, its clanking, clattering marching band drums. Perhaps a byproduct of Stars Like Fleas' extensive post-production work, the sounds in these cuts mutate from phrase to phrase. What you first think is a flute sounds suddenly like a clarinet, what seemed to be a bagpipe before now resembles a violin. Nothing is quite what you'd expect from a real-world instrument, but all sounds evolve with their own internal logic. There is a surreal super-clarity around them, and a certainty that things are exactly as they should be.

All of which makes for a very interesting, often stunningly beautiful ride, experimental passages blending seamlessly into welcoming billows of pure melody. You can easily draw connections from Stars like Fleas to the rest of the Home Tapes crew, to Paul Duncan's improv embellished folk songs and breathily evocative voice, to Slaraffenland's sunny jazz-inflected excursions, or even to Pattern is Movement's abstracted nostalgia for times past. But this is something different, wonderfully evocative of mood and memory without ever giving away the game. The real Ken Burns' effect on me is extreme sleepiness. The Ken Burns Effect makes me dream.

By Jennifer Kelly

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