Review by Ned Raggett
On their second album, the Evangelicals continue in the vein of fragmented and openly loopy psychedelic pop/rock dementia that treasures silence and one or two instrument arrangements as much as full-on big-band rampage. Which is no bad thing, since a little of the latter can go a long way in the early 21st century. The "junior Flaming Lips" tag that the group has had since the start, due as much to the accident of geography in coming from Oklahoma as to the music, isn't entirely going to disappear here, but unlike so many neo-Supertramps that have followed in Wayne Coyne's wake, the Evangelicals strain a lot less in creating their whimsical songs. If anything, Animal Collective would be more of an obvious comparison, but the Evangelicals feel a little more straightforward than said group -- if less inventive on the one hand, definitely less laden with overbearing expectations on the other. A number like "Midnight Vignette" plays around with Beach Boys harmonies as much as any other group these days, but the feeling is more of a woozy lounge jam, while the sudden focus and then spiraling silences of "Party Crashin'" are the band's own creation. The demented laughter on the break for "Skeleton Man, " the easygoing nearly spoken word start of "Stoned Again" -- the most appropriate title for this kind of music and then some -- and the muffled vocal mania on the increasingly more frenetic "Bellawood" are all treats, but somehow it's the xylophone (if it is one) and singing on "Paperback Suicide" that sums up this album best, a winsome and not entirely stable treat.
The Evening Descends
[Dead Oceans; 2008]
In an interview with Pitchfork shortly after the release of Evangelicals' 2006 debut, So Gone, Josh Jones revealed that he was already plotting album no. 2: "I think it's going to be like Marvin Gaye meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show." He wasn't too far off the mark. OK, so maybe Jones' frantic falsetto isn't quite let's-get-it-on smooth, but his mention of the glam-rock musical was no gross overstatement: The Evening Descends is bursting with balcony-pitched histrionics, molten Brian May leads, and standing-ovation-worthy crashes. But what really makes this album special is the ways in which the Evangelicals pull off big-stage spectacle on what still sounds like a public-access cable-show budget.
More than their shared zip code and mutual affinity for lysergic pop songs, it's this thrifty ideology that most closely relates Evangelicals to the Flaming Lips-- specifically the anarchic mid-80s incarnation that proved a few well-utilized Christmas lights and fog machines can make a bar band look like Pink Floyd. But where So Gone deployed the kitchen-sink aesthetic in a more chaotic fashion-- with recording levels and synth squelches dropping in and out of the mix without warning-- on The Evening Descends, the production quirks and strange background noises mostly serve the songs' momentum rather than subvert them. Mind you, that's not a conclusion you'd immediately draw from the opening title track, a deconstructed lullaby that takes all of the Evangelicals' signature devices-- ghostly hums, glammy guitar swirls, video-game synth effects, subliminal conversations and Jones' fragile croon-- breaks them down and pieces them back together at random. But after this curious opener-- perhaps their fucked-up idea of a storybook-like introduction to set the album's nocturnal mood-- Evangelicals don't look back.
Like So Gone, the songs on The Evening Descends find Jones toeing the blurry lines separating ennui, intoxication and insanity. But the more patient, assertive performances (unlike So Gone, Jones recorded the new album with bassist Kyle Davis and drummer Austin Stephens) lends Jones' peculiar musings a greater degree of sincerity. When he sings "please don't tell my mother/ She wouldn't want to know/ I've been goin' crazy" (on "Midnight Vignette"), it sounds less like paranoid stoner-speak than a portrait of a very real domestic drama. The triumphant "Skeleton Man" presents an even more poignant portrait of an outcast in search of acceptance, his pleas for understanding set to a resolute, bouncing-ball march-- in step with Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)"-- that retains its composure even as the strangulated voices and mad-cap laughter inside his head threaten to overcome him. But it's a tentative peace: "How Do You Sleep"-- The Evening Descends' most over-the-top gesture-- gushes forth with a multi-tracked miasma of arpeggiated guitars and operatic shrieks; however, unlike the John Lennon classic of the same name, the song is not a scathing indictment but rather a genuine inquiry into overcoming recurring nightmares.
The Evening Descends' more considered depiction of Jones' psychosis does not come at the complete expense of Evangelicals' more playful whims: "Snowflakes" is a charming winter-wonderland ballad that's a close companion to So Gone's standout serenade "My Heartache", and the bad-trip breakdown of "Party Crashin'" is framed by cheeky faux hospital-drama dialogue between a doctor and an amputee, Jones' cries undercut by a chipper acoustic riff and wailing sirens. Evangelicals are mostly careful to not let their found-sound chicanery overwhelm their songs, however, "Bellawood"-- The Evening Descends' one out-and-out misstep-- is guilty of over-selling the drama, its story of institutionalization delivered with an uncharacteristically contrived performance by Jones and bogged down by B-movie shtickiness (Hitchcockian strings, Theremin effects). Perhaps it's an instant self-correcting measure that the song is immediately followed by "Paperback Suicide", a simple, glockenspieled power-pop number whose breezy, blissful demeanor craftily belies its tale of a frustrated writer who kills himself just to hear his own obituary-- a requiem for every struggling artist who's pondered infamy through the afterlife. And so The Evening Descends' storybook structure yields an important lesson: There's no need to fake the weird when you live in the real world.
-Stuart Berman, January 29, 2008