Pinball With the Velvet Teen

Evidence of indie-pop genius lurks in the shadows; the electronic aspect is ever-present, but rarely overbearing.

 

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The three members of the Velvet Teen are no strangers to transition. After the band's well-received indie gem Out of the Fierce Parade (2002), their 2004 album Elysium ousted guitars completely and received plenty of praise for its lyrical piano arrangements and soaring vocals. Singer Judah Nagler recognizes the band's shifting gears: "Elysium was a bit of a tangent for us, which was just supposed to be an EP…and it ended up being a slightly bigger piece of work than we originally thought it would be." Now, with the release of Cum Laude, Nagler admits this is a heavy nod to their early material, this time with an electronic (not electronica) emphasis.

Recorded in an old warehouse in Petaluma, Calif., the band didn't hesitate to add sounds from a pinball machine they found there, along with countless other bits of blips. "The most fun that we have as a band and that I personally have playing music is when there's kind of an exploratory side to music, where you're learning things as much as you're making things," Nagler states. "The electronic process opens up a lot of different kinds of sounds that you can use."

Much of the IDM noises, paired with new drummer Casey Deitz's hectic drumming, create a psychedelic atmosphere in which Nagler can howl without being drowned out. But evidence of indie-pop genius lurks in the shadows: watery, nostalgic guitars hum behind catchy distorted vocals in "Noi Boi," and "Spin the Wink" winds itself into a blissful rock-out release. The electronic aspect is ever-present, but rarely overbearing.

While Nagler often recorded his ideas for Cum Laude at home and then collaborated with Deitz and bassist Joshua Staples, he realizes the value of initial interpretation. "I think there's a certain spark that happens the first time you play through something that you can't really get back after that," says Nagler, "so it's good to record initial ideas to really capture those out-of-reference ideas that you just come up with on the spot. I like the story of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue where he wrote out all the basic charts for them to play but none of them even got to look at it until they were recording it." Indeed, Cum Laude has an improvisatory feel to it, but is too distinct to be sloppy, and structured enough that it never turns jam band. Not the most accessible of the Velvet Teen's repertoire, but accessibility is for wusses who buy singles online anyway.

Let's not get wusses confused with nerds, either. Nerds have blisters from playing pinball too often. And pinball's awesome.

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