FREEFORM While Crystal Antlers grow more sonorous and confident with 2011’s Two-Way Mirror, the California band still dabble in loose, noisy spontaneity.
At this point in Crystal Antlers' young career, their most powerful song is still the turbulent, desperate "Andrew." The track, which appears on the Long Beach band's 2009 debut Tentacles (Touch & Go), freely muddles the lines between psychedelic, garage, and punk rock in the way the Antlers do so well.
What makes "Andrew" special is its emotional nakedness. It's a search for redemption mapped out by doomed, twinkling instrumentation, a small pile of delay effects, and vocalist/bassist Jonny Bell's ragged howl. Since so much of the Antlers' work is full of feedback and other flourishes, Bell is rarely an intelligible vocal presence, but when he hits the song's chorus — "Don't let me die/Die alone/I know that I/I've been wrong" — those few words are enough to set the scene spectacularly. When "Andrew" finally crescendos with its instruments spinning out of control, it roars like an epic flood of tears. The song ends in finding happiness or death — either way, its resolution is a cathartic thing.
"It's pretty generalized, but it's kind of about the experience of playing music," Bell says of the song, speaking via phone en route to Phoenix. "It can work for anything that you're struggling with. It resonates with me most when we're playing shows to three people or something, and we're in the middle of nowhere."
Like all other Crystal Antlers songs, "Andrew" favors emotions and adventurous concepts over musical proficiency — something Bell brought up in a 2009 interview when he was asked about the band's sonic ties to prog-rock: "People that play prog-rock are probably a lot better at their instruments. It seems like a cerebral thing. Most of our music is just feelings. It's not that contrived." Overall, sure, every band aims to funnel feelings into sound, but what makes Bell and company so convincing is their vulnerability. The music expresses feelings that are messy, complicated, uneven — just like the real thing.
The Antlers's new Two-Way Mirror (Recreation Ltd.) offers more proof of a band that could aim for tight songwriting if they pleased, but chose to do otherwise. The whiny organ in "Way Out" and the skronky sax in "Always Afraid" are more about mood and texture than about conventionally handsome sounds. At the same time, Antlers' music is growing more sonorous and confident with experience: "Summer Solstice" has a smart, relatively clean melody, and "Jules' Story" moves with the inexorability of a tide.
This sophomore album was developed under unusual circumstances. Four of the band's five members spent two months creating the songs in Punta Banda, Mexico, before recording in the States. The isolation from home and the subsequent bonding among bandmembers affected the record, Bell says, since it allowed everyone to contribute. The trip produced lots of material; Bell estimates that 20 versions of "Summer Solstice" exist.