1. Jules' Story
3. Summer Solstice
4. By The Sawkill
5. Two-Way Mirror
6. Way Out
7. Fortune Telling
8. Always Afraid
9. Knee Deep
11. Dog Days
After a couple seconds of light feedback, drum adjustments, and general milling about, "Jules' Story" roars to life and assures us that Crystal Antlers are still a band of volcanic force maintaining the long-haired spirit of 1968 on their second LP. There's enough hurtling Echoplex riffs and organ squall to freak out the squares, but it's all wrapped in three-minute chunks, with verses, choruses, and bridges, prog-psych with all the boring parts sucked out. But despite that opening, just about everything else surrounding the band has changed, and not necessarily for the better. After inking a deal to legendary indie label Touch and Go on the strength of their scalding EP, most listeners caught up with them on 2009's Tentacles. That record was far from a flop, but it was nonetheless a mild letdown, an album saddled by unsteady direction and brittle production. But even if it delivered the goods, it might not have mattered: due to an assortment of financial troubles and a subsequent "drastic downsizing," Tentacles stands as the last new record released by Touch and Go.
And while there are times here when Crystal Antlers forego their whiplash unpredictability and seem almost too in control of their sound on Two-Way Mirror, they're clearly reinvigorated. The most noticeable changes are almost completely cosmetic: though they'll never be pretty, Mirror is far easier to face head-on, dialing back the trebly sizzle of its predecessor into a more comfortable, analog warmth. But the major point is how they've managed to fully integrate slivers of gentler sounds-- hints of surf-rock, lo-fi folk, and drone-- and it feels like growth as opposed to acquiescence. Though Crystal Antlers took steps towards accessibility on Tentacles, bassist/vocalist Jonny Bell went along for the ride kicking and screaming. Not sure when the "On" switch got hit, but Bell finally can be described as a "singer" more than a mere "vocalist," and the lyrics feel like the product of a point of view rather than placeholders.
The success of Two-Way Mirror as a whole is mostly borne of fine-tuning, but "Summer Solstice" is the keeper on account of its
being the most stunning display of ambition here. It's a near-total stylistic dismantling proving the distance between Comets on Fire and The Photo Album-era Death Cab For Cutie could be traversed in three minutes. A churning, distorted bassline cuts through chimes; vigorous tom-rolls and an ascending chorus of halting sighs are very much in the style of Ben Gibbard, albeit far chestier. Even without the video, there's still an undercurrent of vulnerability that you never really got from these guys before, and it's a legitimately new and exciting direction. Previous singles "Andrew" and "Little Sister" were nice enough on their own in terms of pushing Crystal Antlers to something more melodic, but sliding into black-lit blooze rock felt like an otherwise restless band taking the path of least resistance.
It's a triumph of novelty meeting execution, and the best moments here are when they go the furthest lengths not to repeat themselves. I'm sure it'll slay live-- most Crystal Antlers songs do anyway-- but clearly experimental tracks like the drone-and-bongo instrumental "Way Out" and the self-explanatory acid-folk of "Sun-Bleached" serve as chances to let the surrounding assault sink in. In addition to being a strong return to form, Two-Way Mirror gives Crystal Antlers some much needed momentum after an unfortunate run of bad timing and bad luck. Though they're from Long Beach, they do offer some sort of peripheral artistic brotherhood with the teeming retro movement going on in San Francisco. Sure, they might not have the classicist songwriting chops of the Fresh & Onlys or Sonny and the Sunsets, but none of those bands rock this hard either. That stuff is for summer BBQs and backyard parties; Two-Way Mirror is what to spin at the point when you stop caring about noise complaints...www.pitchfork.com