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Mystery Claws - Hydaspia

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Artist: Mystery Claws

Album: Hydaspia

Label: Easter Everywhere

Review date: Aug. 5, 2010

The name Hydaspia is most likely a Wallace Stevens reference, a nod to the poem “Oak Leaves Are Hands,” which begins, “In Hydaspia, by Howzen / Lived a lady, Lady Lowzen / For whom what is was other things.” The poem evokes a fertile creative force, part of the natural world, but driven by unfathomable purpose, with everything created “out of the movement of a few words.” If that’s the allusion, it’s a literate one. It’s also not entirely unexpected from Matt Kivel who, with his twin brother Jesse in Princeton, once made a whole EP about the Bloomsbury Circle.

The song in question, “Hydaspia” is a quiet one, one of several where Kivel’s voice bears comparison to Jeff Tweedy. Oblique, elliptical verses trace a main character’s drifting alienation, working against breaking discontinuous percussion and oddly off-kilter blues guitar. There’s some natural imagery — leaves, dirt, clay — but little overt connection to the Stevens poem. The song seems to be at odds with itself, its plaintive vocals rubbing in friction against an abstract instrumental background, yet the tension makes it a better piece of work, wholly more interesting than either a ballad or a straight up math-y rock song would be.

Elsewhere on the album, Kivel’s new band, which includes singer Julia Bembenek and drummer Stella Mozgawa (of Warpaint), deals in various flavors of baroque pop — folksy country waltzes, machine-driven electro pop, Wilco-ish Beatles envy and, once on “Phony Checks,” a Vaselines-esque driving pop. The tracks are different enough that it’s hard to get a handle on this band’s overall aesthetic, though dual vocals, elliptical verses and a penchant for electro-pop rhythms seem to be a common thread.

Interestly, the further this band gets from feigned country sincerity, the more interesting it becomes. Opener “Life Can Be So Long” raises a wince with its porch-picking folksiness, lines like “You’re in love but you never knowed it,” sounding especially false. Barn-dance waltz-timed “Carpenter’s Waltz” swoons with country harmonies, swoops with rustic fiddle, but something about its extended family scenario seems posed and unreal. Hipper, more knowing “Flashlights” works much better, its electro-dance beat and lush, interlayered vocals bypassing the whole notion of sincerity and heading directly for fabulously posed, strobe-lit pop.

It doesn’t seem like Mystery Claws knows what it wants to be yet, whether it’s going to opt for roots-driven authenticity, school master literacy or straight-on pop. My guess is that they’ll never have the lush, faultless simplicity of a band like Vetiver — they’re too citified here, even when they bring in the fiddles. The literary angle is problematic, too. For a band that seems to read a lot, the lyrics are not very memorable. So maybe that leaves pop as the best alternative. More songs like “Flashlights,” please.

By Jennifer Kelly

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