Starling Electric: Clouded Staircase

By: Sarah Moore

Starling Electric‘s lush pop 2006 album Clouded Staircase was just re- released this July on Bar/None Records (Yo la Tengo, Architecture in Helsinki, Hotel Lights, Of Montreal). Layers of psychedelic ’60s pop harmonies, electric guitar-led rock (“The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”) and an epic three-part interrupted compositions comprise the disc. The four-piece, started by singer-songwriter (and multi-instrumentalist) Caleb Dillon, churns out an 18-song set of pop tunes, “representing all things melodic, baroque, psychedelic and true.”

Layers of psychedelic waves and Dillon’s lofty falsetto bring to mind the bright and happy sludge that came from the ’70s. The melodies beg the listener to sing (or “ooh”) along with the nostalgic sounds. Although the beginning piece, “Massacre,” sounds a bit like some ’90s Gin Blossoms, the large rock sound eventually moves to a varied, layered and experimental fusing of psychedelia and hazy 1960s pop. The “bah bah bahs” section of “Clouded Staircase, Pt. 2” recall the Beach Boys’ cloudy sunshine pop. The cumulus theme echoes from the nebulous lyrics to the grainy, imprecise instrumentation – a blend of found sounds, a bevy of accent instruments and concise compositions that makes for intriguing orchestral pop.

“Camp-Fire,” one of the disc highlights, opens with repeating organ pulsations, keyboards that sound like a harp and harpsichord, and an expansive chorus of “oohs.” Intermittent banjo picking by band member Christian Anderson adds another layer. Drummer John Fossum adds a military-esque stopping and starting rhythm. The bridge involves vocal harmonies overtop just a beating piano, giving an a capella effect. The rest of the instrumentation enters again, emptying into a nighttime array of found sounds. Just as abruptly as the crickets emerged, they disappear. Various percussive elements sound like maracas and spoons against a glass, while guitar and bass offer a mellow rumination. “This one’s for the vampires and the very late hours / If you can conjure up a campfire, a friend is what you’ll find,” sings a hushed Dillon.

Dillon’s lyrics paint vivid pictures and unusual metaphors. Psychedelic themes run rampant. For instance, “Then come through different eyes / mix our blood with the sound of the skies” offers a nightmarish blend of words in “Death to Bad Dreams!” “When you decide to get high, let’s head where spring collides,” he goes on to say in the companion piece “The Black Parade.” With a record as good as this, listeners won’t mind getting lost in psychedelic pop for a while.

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