Monday, June 4, 2012

Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands - Muses and Bones

When I first listened to this CD two or three of months ago, it immediately struck me as the best NC album I'd heard since the Love Language's Libraries (the recent T0W3RS release is in that mix now, too). Now, to qualify that, I hardly listen to every release from every local band, and there's a plethora of great recordings coming out around here every year.  So before gushing ridiculously, I thought I'd wait awhile and let it digest. Plus I hadn't yet gotten back into the milieu of CD reviews. Since then, however, I've reviewed a few good local releases, and this one is way overdue.  So now for the ridiculous gushing...

Muses and Bones is, quite simply, a stunningly beautiful collection of music. But you need to give it time. It starts with a deceptively upbeat tone, and if you don't get past the first two or three songs, you're won't get the full breadth of this album. On the opener, Especially Your Mother, the accordion gets moving, and it feels like a party is starting. Crystal sings of a spirited flirtation destined to failure ("You walked around me to see what's on the other side, what's behind / you walked beside me and before you walked out the door, I adored you").  But in a playful -- and danceable -- way, the idea of being stuck in an unhealthy relationship, and the difficulty one has in finding the strength to extricate oneself from it, is introduced.

By the sixth song, Today, this same idea will break your heart.

Drowned Out follows the opener, and it's a rollicking number bemoaning the over-consumption and hubris of humanity.  Jumpy accordion and a marching beat are backed by trumpet, with the overall feel of a manic cabaret.  It's a great song, and may be many listeners' favorite.  But I think it somewhat interrupts the flow of what is otherwise a very cohesive album.  Once past it, and you really get into the meat of Muses.  A gentler, darker tone begins with The Misplaced Zygote: Down the Wrong Chimney. Vocals and other instrumentation really start to shine, and the arrangements, in sparseness, blossom. Diego Diaz' spanish-influenced guitar softy accompanies Crystal's high, soft voice and some eerie musical saw, before accordion, trumpets, and percussion kick in.  Her vocals are earthy, mysterious... Kate Bush perhaps an octave lower.  Zygote introduces the ideas of empowerment and independence that run throughout the album: "I will be free of this and everything you want me to be"; "I can no longer feel this way if I ever want to live again."  There's also some neat animal imagery: "feeding me worms when I'm meant to eat lilies and violets, chickweed and hay."

The next three songs grab the themes and feel of Muses and Bones and run with them.  First comes Adungu, a sensual, spellbinding song of someone who is themselves spellbound, against all better judgement.  She knows it's wrong, but she begs the lover to "lie to me lie to me..." and promises to "stay right here where you want me to be".  The song's namesake, the adungu (an African harp), hypnotically draws the listener in, and is joined by a symphony of percussion (exceptional on this cut).  Ghostly electric slide and soft trumpet fill in the spaces.

Corpus Callosum is Adungu re-cast, sort of an organic remix.  In fact in some ways, it's almost the same song... a gutsy move, and one that probably takes someone with an advanced musical education (which Crystal has) to pull off (which she does).   Where many of the lyrics ("lie to me, lie to me") and some of the musical progression are shared, the instrumentation and arrangement are totally different.  But moreso, the delivery and resultant meaning are 180 degrees from Adungu.  This is a person who is coming to a realization... waking up.  Now, when she sings "so what if everything works out fine and I stayed right where you've always wanted to be", it's with disdain, if not outright contempt.  At least with eyes open, as she adds "But there's always the chance of leaving, and I told you to stop waiting / It's true, I do, continue to play this game with you".   At the end, she proclaims anyone who can explain this dichotomy within as worthy of "taking my paw in yours and resting upon my floor all night."  The word "night" is delivered with bite.  And she'll only go so far... you can rest on her floor.  Love the animal imagery again.  In short, Corpus Callosum is Adungu with a push rather than a pull.

By the time Today softly begins, the push has become a break, complete with the deep sadness that comes with it.  There's still the doubt ("Why must you stay, why must you take"), but there is realization, and strength, found in the grief ("I could be so kind, but I am not blind").  And on Today, the beautiful piano Crystal plays makes it's first real appearance.  I'm reminded of George Winston, whom I never really liked.  But this... it just works.  It accentuates the heart-rending feel of the song.  Simply beautiful.  And the wonderful percussion and trumpet also highlight what is a very minimalist song. 

As the album gets quieter, more goes on.  December continues pulling at your heart.  The quiet piano continues, this time accented by musical saw and accordion.  It's another minimal tune with a lot in it.  When the piano starts jumping and rolling about two-thirds of the way through, I'm thinking Broadway... another genre I don't especially like.  But again, it just works

Now, I don't want to give the impression that this is just some technically proficient, show tune-new age hybrid of a band.  There is clearly accomplished songwriting and playing at work here, but also spark and originality.  Plus, the Silver Hands understand the importance of a little chaos... especially among such beautifully orchestrated music.   Amid the beauty of swelling keys and vocals, mystical guitar, and more exotic stringed instruments, room is made for groaning, squealing, and at times just slamming the keyboard.   This comes off even more in their live show, where they seem more like a gypsy troupe, circus rejects in the Spanish countryside.  It's a feel captured somewhat by the first three songs, Toy Hammer, and the little interludes Bones and Lilies and Chimera March (you half expect Tom Waits to chime in with his inimitable growl during March).

The last third or so of the CD -- December / Killing Table / Spiral Sky / Bones and Lilies / Little Match Girl -- work together as a stunning unit, in the same way Kate Bush's Ninth Wave (the B-side from her classic Hounds of Love album) did.   Frankly, they'd make a damn fine musical... one even I'd pay to see.  It's not surprising that the band often collaborates with circus performers, dancers, and other artists, as they recently did in at FlowJo in Chapel Hill.

Crystal has said that Muses and Bones is not meant to be autobiographical, that the aim was to write a song cycle about a woman's journey of discovery and self-realization. It's hard to believe, as the songs sound so intimate and personal.  But what that does make clear is we are listening to a first-rate songwriter, singer, and musician (one who backed by equally accomplished players).  Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands are one of the best North Carolina acts I've heard of any genre...  hell, they're sort of "of every genre".  They're scheduled to tour all over the Southeast in the coming months, so you should have plenty of chances to see them, beginning this Thursday at the Cave in Chapel Hill.  While the fun, gypsy vibe of the live show is somewhat different from much of this album, it's equally as good.  Go see them!   

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