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Crystal Stilts - Alight of Night

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Artist: Crystal Stilts

Album: Alight of Night

Label: Slumberland

Review date: Nov. 7, 2008

To strip is to remove everything that can be removed, until what’s left is irreducible. A person generally strips to be analyzed. This is often an indignity.

Rock songs can be stripped, too. One accomplishes as much by isolating their sacred center, chords and lyrics (the Music Itself), without the periphery - bass, keyboards, drums, effects and stage presence can be stashed in the dressing room, and most conventional rock songs will remain recognizable.

I raise this obvious and maybe strange point with regards to Crystal Stilts because, although they’re an attractive band, they might not be that appealing naked. Their new record, Alight of Night, outfits a lot of straightforward, three-chord tunes with distortion and disaffection. The vocals in particular are so awash in reverb that the words are almost inaudible. Often the lack of fidelity is much more present than the "music itself," the fuzzy trails of tambourine, slide guitar, and organ riffs annihilating the "song" with texture.

But what would happen if we brought Crystal Stilts into the examination room? Nothing good. The songs would not hold up in the laboratory of, say, the open mic night. On an acoustic guitar, their poetry dangling before the world, they would sound pale and bony. I expect that some people will notice this about Alight of Night and dismiss it on account of a lack in the "songwriting," a suspicion that it lacks something, somewhere underneath.

Though what could we expect? Is unplugging actually a useful musical bullshit detector?

Crystal Stilts is a vehicle for ennui, a feeling that’s found much expressive traction in monotony, passivity and sedate delivery through the years. This album, like Psychocandy or Unknown Pleasures, to which it directly nods, is unhearable without its affected conceits, which are both its substance and its form. To listen otherwise is to imagine a different album.

The abuse of scare quotes up above is not at all meant as a dismissal of Crystal Stilts’ music, but of the idea that the stripped-down "music itself" has much merit as a critical category. On Alight of Night, nothing is hidden under the layers of reverb, the sustained distortion, the drony melodies, or the out-of-tune harmonica, because it is exactly these units of nonchalance that were used to compose the record in the first place, as is the shoegazer’s way. These songs are dull because they are about dullness, as sad movies are sad because they are about sadness.

I have friends and records: I don’t need to see either of them naked.

By Ben Tausig

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