Stars Like Fleas
The Ken Burns Effect
heck, check, we're on the air," says the first voice on Ken Burns Effect, because there's a chance you may not have realized.
Here's a band that'll never get anyone's time of day and frankly they're too retiring to warrant an outcry over it. But—heh—this is Brooklyn's best dectet, and everyone I know who soldiered through 2004's Sun Lights Down On the Fence eventually reported being glad they did. Rewards, people: they're not just something you get for mailing in UPC labels.
Stars Like Fleas epitomize one of my favorite unconsecrated musical genres—what I like to call "spaced-in." Spaced-in is music that soothes, relaxes, intoxicates, massages, assuages, and sometimes beguiles but requires a modest effort by the listener in order to work properly. Ken Burns Effect, like the best spaced-in, provides an intense foreground listening experience—an experience that just happens to inspire reverie and the occasional hallucination.
Over the summer trying (and struggling) to get into this record, I thought: Quintessential fall band. Listening back recently during what felt like the first cold day in years, I agreed with myself. Stars Like Fleas' music evokes the feeling that something has gone missing, dried up, faded away—the kind of feeling you get when you stop hearing crickets and voices outdoors and start noticing things like the wind. 4:01 into "I'm Only Dancing," KBE's volatile second track, a brushed snare drum penetrates the moody silence. The sound is crackling dry, as if the drummer replaced his snare head with parchment paper. It's a too-obvious nature metaphor: the sound of leaves skitting across the ground. I like to imagine SLF didn't intend to conjure such a specific image here, that it just seemed like the right move.
Stars Like Fleas are more fall than Adem, whose songs similarly evoke cool pastoral moods from negative space, or try to. I reviewed the UK songwriter's latest album for another publication around this same time last year, and man did I want to love it. But Adem's silences shrank rather than enlarged his cloudgazing love songs, ironic because the album, Love & Other Planets, mused on space and the Universe. Ken Burns Effect achieves what that album couldn't, which is making nothing something. However little you can actually hear on "Early Riser"—bird chirps, glock plinks, and banjo dandruff stand out—you get the sense its borders push way beyond the audible horizon.
The band does more than prettify voids; they can fill a small hole, too. "Berbers in Tennis Shoes" clocks in at 2:51, making it the album's only sub-three-minute track. Yet it packs so many funny (because unexpected) turns. The way the chirpy verse suddenly faceplants on a strange interval, the way the chorus resolves not to another verse but to grandiose tympani and swooning strings, the way lyrics emjamb all over the place: these gestures surprise doubly, both by subverting expectation internally and by revealing the Fleas as closet popists.
I like this band cause they're tricky, almost impossible to parse. Every time they fall back to their strengths—spaciousness, beautifully-recorded instruments, lulling ruminative melodies—pretty soon there's another script flip. "She for the Woods" lets you glimpse what Akron/Family might achieve if they weren't so coochie-coochie all the time; instead of "Space is love! Space is love!" we get lovely space and a case of the panging lonelies. But "You Azre My Meoir" follows up with a backbeat (banal!), crashing piano (opulent!), and a charming plucked string melody (bourgeois!). It's a pop song, one of two straight-facedly featured on this really quite non-pop album. Me being me, I rank it and "Berbers in Tennis Shoes" one-two among these ten tracks. So do yourself a favor: Trench down deep into this record's spacious crannies and let these surprises work their contrariness to full effect.
Reviewed by: Sam Ubl
Reviewed on: 2007-10-29