CD Review: Starling Electric – Clouded Staircase (Bar None)

Let’s face it: I am a jaded music critic. I get scads of albums, CDs, shiny disks – whatever you want to call them – from artists all over the world who check out the twelve or so sites and magazines for which I currently write and feel that because I am able to string a few sentences together and come up with a few choice words I am able to critique their CD and find the true essence of their art and what they are really “about”. They think I will “get” them and their music and be able to translate my feelings into prose that will move people to feel as I do and buy their albums in bunches.
But, to be honest, I got news for you: most of the time I don’t get what most artists are pushing on people these days.

Between the latter-day releases by bands and artists who don’t really have it anymore, that are nowhere near releasing their best work (and probably never will release anything worthwhile again) and albums by bands who are so far away from EVER having it and probably never will, I often feel ho-hum, ambivilent even (ambivilent – now there’s a good word that will have about ten bands wanting me to write some reviews for them, damn my spelling bee champion, dictionary-reading heart) about dragging my ass over to the stereo and putting another shiny coaster in the slot and listening to music. And I love music, dammit. It fills up my heart when it’s good and makes my little feet feel like dancing! But when it’s bad, or even worse, ordinary – it makes me want to climb to the top of the nearest office building and shoot as many people as I can as they walk out the doors.
H’m. Maybe I need to have this problem looked into.


But, every once in a while, something shines through. I’d hesitate to refer to it as an aural beacon of light in the darkness as that verbiage is a kind of hoary cliche, but it is as vivid and visceral as that. Or almost as startling as hearing something that connects deep within your soul after being surrounded by silence by what seems forever (or maybe just after being constantly buffeted by noise that simply makes no sense) and what you’ve just heard is so meaningful and true when you least expect it that it knocks you for a loop. Maybe it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, at least it often does for me, and almost snaps you to a different level of conciousness – one that gives you the ability to look at the world as if everything suddenly makes sense – an incredible clarity that shouts at you that this is music that needs to be exposed and shared. Often, when this happens, I immediately make plans to tell people. Whether I write about it, or mention it to friends when I see them or usually both, I try to prosletyze the greatest as fast and as thoroughly as I can. I feel like I must expose as many as I can to something that knocks me out.

Maybe something you’ve heard has done that to you recently, made you feel the same way. God, I hope it has. For me, a little band by the name Starling Electric made me feel as if rock music was suddenly worthwhile again. And, surprisingly, what they do is not completely original or something that has not been done before. It’s the way they combine the musical ingredients of the past and present to create a fresh recipe, exciting the ears with the aural ambrosia they have been able to create by melding their influences with their own fresh takes on how their favorite artists would create their music today. Dillon and the band takes inspiration from The Zombies, The Hollies, Orgone Box and other baroque pop. Maybe the Left Banke would also be a good comparison. But, it’s how they do it that makes the band’s music so magical. It’s as if they have finally lit upon a sonic hybrid that has either not been done before or done so rarely or incompetently the band sounds as if they have come up with something sounding completely new, yet sounding strangely familiar at the same time. As if one of your longtime favorite songs has just been written. Weird, I know, but that’s the impression I get from listening to this album.

Originally the brainchild of singer/songwriter Caleb Dillon, the band has become fleshed out with dynamic musicians Jason DeCamillis and Christian Anderson (who handle the guitar chores) and drummer John Fossum. What makes the band’s modern chamber pop cum psychedelic explosion a little different than some bland genre exercise is despite hearing echoes of the past in the band’s sound, it is very hard to pick out cliches and assign them to their original creators. For example, though you can listen to the first two songs of this CD and feel like you are listening to music The Kinks or The Zombies might have made, there are no direct rips from The Kinks or The Zombies. It is more the mood and instrumentation than anything resembling musical theft and really only a modicum of that anyway as the band also offers an exciting post-punk energy that brings bands such as Television to mind as well. And lest you think I am hyping this album up above and beyond the call of duty, I do hear flaws. For example, the album starts out great with the song The St. Valentines Day Massacre and then goes right into the title track. For my money, this is one of the greatest one-two punches I have heard in a long time. The album progresses from there and does actually start to fade by the end but what comes between those first few songs and the last few is some of the greatest baroque pop tempered with post-punk pop I have ever heard. As wonderful as it is I can’t help but ponder what a truly great producer could do with Dillon’s songs, what could be created. Dillon is not simply about “I Love You” – these songs go to a much deeper place and have a great scope to them that belies his youth.

Though I would be lying if I said the album was the best thing I have ever heard, I am not making up the excitement I feel about this young band. Listening to the exemplary songwriting and hearing the band’s seamless blending of styles old and new, I hear something original bursting from the ether for the first time in a while. Look, I am not stranger to hyperbole and sometimes it seems as if each CD I like seems to make me proclaim it’s greatness loudly – but this CD reaqlly brings out the rock and roll fan in me in a way I haven;t felt for a long time. Take whatever I say however you normally do. If it’s with a grain of salt, I understand. But please check out this album. It may just be the best thing you ever heard. Are you willing to pass it up and take the chance you’re missing out on something that will change your life? Music can still matter. This CD has made me remember that.