Sometimes a gimmick can trample upon the art. We have all seen it. Some band who may or may not be creating something special, only to let it take a firm back seat to a schtick. Perhaps it is an elaborate super shiny multimedia extravaganza. It might come in the form of a five-person, multi-tuned cowbell section and/or audio samples from Dr. Strangelove. These are the kinds of bands that leave the soundman sorely exclaiming, “How many mics and DIs do you need again?” before sulking off and muttering under his breath a filthy slew of words only known to the hardiest of sailors.
With a live set up that features up to double-digit members playing various strings, percussion and woodwinds, it would be easy for Claire and the Crowded Stage to suffer this pitfall. Thankfully, on the new album Kamikaze, the band shows masterful control of how to question the integrity of a stage’s weight limit in a way that is truly synergistic to a great whole.
The range of tones and sounds featured throughout make it almost unclassifiable, a truly wonderful sideshow of pop music. Kudos to the arranger (and sound engineer) for creating a roadmap and space for each part to shine in just the right way. The instrumentation is woven with a delicate and deft touch. At any given time, the listener can focus upon any of the various elements and clearly decipher what dish it brings to the dinner table. It is a symphony of rock music, like a progressive new high school band teacher fresh out of grad school choosing to close his first spring concert with a version of “Helter Skelter.”
At times, it is almost a rock music bait-and-switch. During the proggy break in “Songbird,” the usual scathing guitar takes a back seat in the rhythm section to let the clarinet champion the solo with splitting vigor. The single reed’s moment in the spotlight works especially well in tandem when it returns to its more traditional floaty place on the following “Night Owls,” whose side-to-side head bob groove sounds like the perfect sound track for a Tootsie Roll pop commercial. Extra points for the delightfully arbitrary reprise outro.
Other strong moments include the Avett Brothers-go-to-Disneyland sounds of “Tower of Babel” and the prohibition jazz speakeasy slice of noir in “Technicolor.” “I Saw it All” is perhaps the best use of the symphony style arrangement on the record, growing from simple ukulele to full orchestra pit and back again. “The Nightside of Day” finishes off the record as a delightful denouement with joyful-sounding, yet stormily-themed sock hop flair.
Fronting this well-oiled juggernaut is the powerfully voiced Claire Adams. Her affected vocal stylings pierce the ear in a beautiful misfit manner, ranging from a very airy and playful Regina Spektor to the soulful belt of Neko Case. Much like the success shown by the orchestra beneath her, she shows great discretion on when to play the sweet little skipping girl with cartoon hearts in her eyes and when to let fly the tortured, broken soul inside. The often-paired harmony vocals add a further power and intrigue in all the right spots.
As if it needed yet even another cylinder to fire upon, the lyrics are often nothing short of poetry. Lines such as:
Oh, I’m a boat of awkward, sinking in the shifting waters of our chemistry (from “Kamikaze”)
It's been a long grey time, rhymes in red, blue and yellow fighting to flash well, nobody's talking trash just pass the hat 'til someone steps up to bat sayin' I know something you don't know (from “Technicolor”)
I watched the sun it rose, standing on my tiptoes to catch the moment when the day broke in halves as people live straining to love and give, it's just another tower of babel falling (from “Tower of Babel”)
… are just a few examples of the impactful wordsmithing flexed throughout.
All put together, it ends up being one damn fine record that should definitely be added to your collection. Having been fortunate enough to catch Claire and the Crowded Stage a few times in various haunts, the live show is equally as impressive. Make sure you check it out and get your own copy of Kamikaze.
Zach Hodson is a monster. He once stole a grilled cheese sandwich from a 4-year-old girl at her birthday party. He will only juggle if you pay him. I hear he punched Slimer right in his fat, green face. He knows the secrets to free energy, but refuses to release them until Saved by the Bell: Fortysomethings begins production. He is also in Dolls on Fire,Drew Black & Dirty Electric, and Riot Riot Riot, as well as contributing to various other Kansas City-based music, comedy, and art projects.
Claire and the Crowded Stage will be commandeering the recordBar stage this Saturday, July 26, to celebrate the release of Kamikaze. Ali Holder & Christy Hays and Bearing Torches will open the show at 10 pm. Facebook event page.