Friday, July 16, 2010

The Constellation Branch - The Dream Life, The Real Life, The Empty Glass (2008)

I like it when art moves me.  It doesn't have to bring me to tears, stir me to action, or challenge my views on anything to do this, but just affect me on some base emotional level.  When a band or artist can do this, it thrills me.  When it happens nearly every time you listen to an album, you've struck gold.  There are a handful of albums that I react to emotionally every time I play them.  Some are old favorites that always bring back pleasant memories when I spin them, and others are just really good albums that command my attention and give me a certain emotional resonance when I listen.  The latter applies to this, the auspicious debut by The Constellation Branch.

What I feel with this album is a complex emotional melting pot.  There's a sense of whimsy, an emotional intensity, but also an emotional disconnect.  There are frantic moments where the music, vocals & lyrics all swell to great effect.  There are also plaintive, more reserved moments where you are gently lulled into a quiet calm, but with an underpinning uncertainty and trepidation as to the calm or it's source.  I realize words pale in comparison, as truly the only way to get a sense of what's really going on is to actually sit down & listen to the album itself.

Musically, this is a feverish blend of indie rock, disjointed pop, post-hardcore, and cracked melodies all rolled into an interesting mix.  The layout of the album into what essentially becomes 3 "suites" really allows the band to take different textures and move through them in varying levels throughout each "suite", and also recall a couple melodic themes in a couple spots.  Guitars resonate with plenty of echo and powerful distortion when called for, and ring with quiet confidence when the pedal is switched back to a cleaner sound.  There are a number of subtle effects going on that don't overpower the guitar feel, just embellish enough to give it texture.  Drum work is excellent, having a wide range of dynamics, using more drum & cymbal variation than most rock bands know (including good use of rimshots in one song), and having enough authority to know when to really go for it, and when to back off & let another instrument take center stage.  Bass work is fine, though not showy or overtly present, content to fulfill its role in being part of the backdrop.  The varying addition of piano, organ, keyboards, strings, and other sounds is quite diverse here, giving the album a much more expansive feel to it than would have been present otherwise.  Vocally, Jordan Cruz is all over the place, from spirited screams and near-banshee wails to smooth-yet-tortured falsetto crooning and singing that carries the emotional feel of the music.

Lyrically, this is a concept album.  It deals with the idea that we as humans (the empty glass) have this ideal of what our lives should be like (the dream life), and then there's reality (the real life).  We as the empty glass try to fill the void we have in our lives with whatever we choose, and  the album sees the writer expressing himself about the search for the "right" thing to fill the void, and the daily struggles & hardships that he faces through this journey.  It's a compelling story, though naturally somewhat fractured (as only befitting the disjointed indie rock of this type), so you really have to listen to it a few times to pick up on all the themes & get a true sense of what the album expresses.  It's a large, sweeping concept that fits the music well in all its emotional ebb and flow.

So how do you possibly score an album that has both had a profound effect on you lyrically & musically, and yet is a debut album by a band that may yet be finding themselves?  I have no choice but to give this album a high score because they are on the mark so much of the time.  There are a couple spots ("Black Hole" for example) where things get a touch too repetitive, but the emotional impact isn't dulled so much by this repetition that it stunts the album.  The recurring musical themes help tie the record together well, and even the "hidden" song at the end, with its super-simple piano line and reverbed vocal is captivating & a good listen every time.  My only fear is that the band won't be able to follow up this near-masterpiece with something quite as strong, and after all the time between releases, it may seem as if the band has lost some steam.  If they can either continue to write songs based around a concept, or if they can write quality "bottle" songs like fellow indie rockers The Human Flight Committee or mewithoutYou, they will have an incredibly bright future.  As it stands, this record is (as of this writing) my favorite indie rock record and a true show of talent for this band.  Essential.


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