New Life For Lies

Hardcore trainspotters might recognize Vic Bondi as the fast and furious frontman for the legendary Articles of Faith or as the mature and comparatively subdued voice behind Alloy. In JONES VERY, Bondi is a multifaceted character weaving between the two with both dexterous restraint and unchecked passion, inadvertently creating one of the best records you’ve probably never heard.

1. Burning World
2. Nothing Sin
3. Beckett
4. The Last Joke
5. Alabaster Sons
6. Straight Time
7. Dead at the River
8. Two Minutes
9. Bastards Win
10. Here and Gone

Vic Bondi: Vocals, Guitar
Jeff Goddard: Bass
Jamie Van Bramer: Drums

Additional Musicians:

Pat Mahoney: Backing Vocals, Guitars
Kenny Chambers: Guitars
Carl Plaster: Bass Overdubs

Recorded 1991
Released November 1992

Recorded & Mixed at Fort Apache, MA
Engineered by Carl Plaster
Produced by Lou Giordano
Mastered at Future Disc by Eddie Schreyer, CA
Layout/Graphics by Marcus Durant
Photography by Shawn Scallen

New Life For Lies

Hardcore trainspotters might recognize Vic Bondi as the fast and furious frontman for the legendary Articles of Faith or as the mature and comparatively subdued voice behind Alloy. In JONES VERY, Bondi is a multifaceted character weaving between the two with both dexterous restraint and unchecked passion, inadvertently creating one of the best records you’ve probably never heard.

Vic Bondi: Vocals, Guitar
Jeff Goddard: Bass
Jamie Van Bramer: Drums

Additional Musicians:

Pat Mahoney: Backing Vocals, Guitars
Kenny Chambers: Guitars
Carl Plaster: Bass Overdubs

Recorded 1991
Released November 1992

Recorded & Mixed at Fort Apache, MA
Engineered by Carl Plaster
Produced by Lou Giordano
Mastered at Future Disc by Eddie Schreyer, CA
Layout/Graphics by Marcus Durant
Photography by Shawn Scallen

1. Burning World
2. Nothing Sin
3. Beckett
4. The Last Joke
5. Alabaster Sons
6. Straight Time
7. Dead at the River
8. Two Minutes
9. Bastards Win
10. Here and Gone

Trains Of Thought

Explosive and intelligent post-hardcore rock. Led by ex-Articles of Faith frontman, Vic Bondi. Like the GRAVEL, the CD contains four extra songs

Vic Bondi: Vocals, Guitar
Jeff Goddard: Bass, Vocals
Jamie Van Bramer: Drums
Recorded 1991
Released November 1991
Recorded at Fort Apache, MA
Produced & Engineered by Lou Giordano
Mastered at Future Disc by Eddie Schreyer, CA
Graphics by Kurt Sayenga
Photography by Tim Owen

1. No More
2. It Comes Around
3. What She Told Me
4. Ideas New Tomorrow
5. Feet of Clay
6. Fugitive Time

Ester Drang [I]Rocinate[/I] Review

Since 1995, the Oklahoma natives of Ester Drang have been trekking northward. The band’s journey has extended to their tour circuit and side projects — percussionist James McAlister and guitarist Jeff Shoop are both featured prominently on Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois — and to their passion for wider expanses of sound.

On Rocinate, the multi-instrumental trio throb toward a dreamscape at the edge of the world. Showcasing high-minded yet groove-oriented tracks ("Great Expectations," "Proustian Moments"), the album is atmospheric and amoebic like the Northern Lights. Throughout, there is a sense of heartfelt conversation, of witnessing something fantastic.

Sigur Rós–type melodic repetitions build over delightfully fuzzy, intricate breakbeats recalling the late-’90s work of fellow Okies the Flaming Lips. The overall sound is impossible to break apart. Yet singer and multi-instrumentalist Bryce Chambers’s vocal drone lacks a certain oomph. Whether crooning "Come back tonight / Come back alive" or "I’m dying just to be with you," he never quite commits to the emotional pull found in the ballads of Brian Eno but also refuses to just speak his angsty mind. At best, he recalls Teenage Fanclub’s noise-pop sweetness. At his worst, one wishes that the awesome trip-hop in the background would shine through. When it does — in "Caledonia" and "Smoke and Air" — tight interactions light up the dance floor and illuminate our nights.

Ester Drang [I]Rocinate[/I] Review

"Not as quixotic as you might expect based on the title.

While lofty, romantic ideas definitely permeate the songs of Ester Drang’s third full-length album Rocinate, there’s none of the foolishness or impracticality in pursuit of those ideas that you might expect from an album named after a central character of Don Quixote. Maybe that’s why the band chose to hang the name of the album around the neck of the trusty horse rather than the misguided anti-hero of that novel. Whatever the motivation was, the 10 tracks of Rocinate twitter their way through a grandiose musical landscape populated with strings, groovin’ bass lines, horns, ?°»90s synth-drum beats, ?°»70s spy film and television theme song throwbacks, Coldplay-ish piano intros (“Valencia’s Dying Dream”), and moments of Pink Floyd-meets-Spiritualized-meets-The Beach Boys pop dreaminess. That’s a lot to fit into an album and occasionally the mixture becomes a bit dissonant, but for the most part the songs are quite solid and elicit a knowing nod in their direction from the listener.

The weak link in the chain that binds this album together seems to be the lyrics, which are never actually bad, but they do tend to be a bit bland (e.g.: “I can’t seem to / ever forget you” repeated over and over as the chorus of “Valencia’s Dying Dream”). Despite that small quibble, the last minute or so of almost every song is when you receive the big payoff with this album. In these waning moments, all of the instrumental elements bleed together in an expansive and massive melding of musicality that makes nearly every track worth listening to.

“Everyone is a Victim” stands out from the crowd with its slightly unconventional guitar riff and simple, moving chorus that comes across as sublime despite the somewhat critical lyrics. The combination of these elements delivers on the obvious attempted grandeur of the album and goes to show that this band can pull together a great song that moves beyond all the musical hoopla. I happen to think Ester Drang could have made fantastic instrumental soundtracks to sensual spy films in the 1970s, but even as a currently existing musical team creating ethereal tunes, they manage to provide an entire album that is expansive enough to garner some serious attention."

Ester Drang [I]Rocinate[/I] Review

"What could be more simple than getting into a groove, sticking with it and seeing where it takes you? Lots of bands have had success with this formula and it’s not hard to see why. People – even seasoned record reviewers – like what is familiar whether or not they are willing to admit it, and bands that play up those parts of songs that make listeners’ stomachs flip-flop will always sell records. If something works in one part of one song, why not do it over and over? That’s how musical genres are born, after all.

It’s a good bet that a lot of fans of Ester Drang’s sophomore record, “Infinite Keys” expected just that sort of complacence. “Infinite Keys” is absolutely chock full of the kind of melancholy moves that tug at the trigger fingers of the chronically morose, begging them to finish the job years of Morrissey records started. It is an overtly moody and darkly beautiful record. Ester Drang seemed poised to single-handedly reinvent the shoegazer movement in the United States.

And while there aren’t a lot of major chords or poppy hooks in “Rocinate,” it stands apart from the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma band’s previous efforts because of its concentration not on mood but precise songwriting and instrumental technicality. The musical ideas that popped up only to be muted by sultry blankets of sound on “Infinite Keys” have been explicated on “Rocinate.” Ester Drang has fully realized songs that may once have been left in their most basic form.

“Grave Mistake,” for example, is a tune that could easily have been a great song with simple half- or quarter note organ dronery. Instead, the tune is taken to another level with a more complex fingering that steps out of the background just far enough to be noticed before fading back into the shadows.

And yet there are times when enough is enough. The sparse piano and trumpet work on “Hooker With A Heart of Gold” balances the song’s sometimes-overwhelming orchestral track. Though it starts off sounding overproduced, in its entirety the tune winds up being one of the best on the album.

Rocinate features more changes than its predecessors, too. All of this makes for a beautifully complex album that may be a little harder to digest than “Infinite Keys.” Chew slowly."

Spin Band of the Day: Ester Drang

Don’t lie. If all you knew about indie band Ester Drang was that their name is Ester Drang, you probably wouldn’t be too intrigued. But just as thou shalt not judge a book by its cover, thou shalt not judge a band by its name (which sounds like a random aunt’s), or by the contiguous state they’re from, for that matter. These guys emerged from the depths of tumbleweed-ridden Oklahoma. Despite the weird name, despite the Oklahoma thing, Ester Drang manages to make some flawlessly ethereal music.

On the band’s third full-length album, Rocinate (out Jan. 24 on Jade Tree), vocalist Bryce Chambers proves himself a quietly stellar leader, a la Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle. Think Elliott Smith’s seriousness (minus the sheer misery), Chris Carrabba’s sincerity (minus the whining), and Imogen Heap’s innovativeness (minus the cool name).

After releasing an EP, single, and full-length album, the duo of Chambers (vocals, keys, guitar) and James McAlister (percussion) scooped up Jeff Shoop (guitar) in 2003 and signed with Jade Tree. Then came a second full length — the well-received Infinite Keys — and an abrupt reality check in the form of a wicked car crash. The band walked away unscathed; their equipment was annihilated.

While recording Rocinate, McAlister and Shoop squeezed in a stint as backing musicians on a little record called Illinois. Spending their spare time helping out cult hero Sufjan Stevens? Even smelly Aunt Ester back in Oklahoma would be proud.

Ester Drang [I]Rocinate[/I] Review

"Beatles on downers. That was my first impression of Rocinate, but I do like this album. It is rich with lifeless volume and dragging montone beats; a sequence of sounds (speech, song or music) that stays at exactly the same pitch throughout. It makes you shift in your seat and feel the rhythm. Anything out of the norm with music almost always is catchy and artistic. This CD is an abstract painting with notes. It embodies a language of tunes and shallow remnants of the 60s and 70s hippies that make you swim in air and mimic instruments with your body. It makes you think of movies where the main character is going through a drug-induced high and is coming to the realization that they have a problem. This is a good grooving album, and I think it will definitely go into your collection as that one CD you use to sit back and just chill.

Reviewer: Erika Ellis new pop

Reviewer’s Rating: 8.5
Reader’s Rating: 0
Reader’s Votes: 0"

Ester Drang [I]Rocinate[/I] Review

The song “Hooker with a Heart of Gold,” from Ester Drang’s third full length album, Rocinate, could be seen as a musical interpretation of the Bret Harte short story, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” The title being a reference to the character Mother Shipton, while a line from the song, “It’s like a bullet through your heart,” represents the anti-climatic ending to the story in which a down on his luck gambler, John Oakhurst, takes his own life in similar fashion.

The point is that the Tulsa trio, Ester Drang, create music that is so surreal, textured, sincere and compelling, that it often sounds and feels like the soundtrack to a movie you haven’t seen, or an interpretation of a book you haven’t read. Like any great movie soundtrack, the feeling of euphoria engulfing Rocinate, is created by layers upon layers of gorgeous musical variation. “Come Back Alive,” aside from its haunting lyricism and echoed vocals, features a refreshing breeze of sweeping horns. “Valencia’s Dying Dream” offers bittersweet rain drop piano alongside notes from a western slide guitar that yields a similar result to that of World Leader Pretend, in sounding both sincere, but completely bombastic as well. “Caledonia,” a song that bridges the musical gap between their elaborate first effort, Goldenwest, and their more structured second, Infinite Keys, is an almost entirely instrumental piece that features racing flutes, harsh electronic effects and rollicking drums. The strength of such tracks makes Rocinate their most appeasing and mature work to date.

Indie Tour Van Crash Of The Week: Ester Drang

Micah C. Harding reports:
We are, oh my brothers (and sisters), in the wake of a right bolshy strain of auto accidents involving musicians. Just in the past year, mishaps with motor vehicles have taken a quite serious toll, especially from Stereolab, Alien Ant Farm, and The Exploding Hearts. Others have fared better: witness the recent backhoe incident at the Butch Vig studio, the Kingsbury Manx crash, and K Records’ Dub Narcotic posse thrown from their tour van.

And now, we bring you more of the ultraviolence: recent Jade Tree recruits Ester Drang were involved in a serious crash in St. Louis, MO, when a car struck the rear of their van and trailer. Though the band members were uninjured, the collision totaled all the band’s equipment and has caused them to cancel a portion of their U.S. tour. They have hopes of rejoining the tour with The American Analog Set set by October 29th at the mesto Abbey Pub in Chicago to promote their latest release, Infinite Keys. Those dates:

10-29 Chicago, IL – Abbey Pub
10-30 Madison, WI – Catacombs Coffee House
10-31 Milwaukee, WI – Triple Rock *
11-01 Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock Social Club *
11-04 Seattle, WA – Graceland *
11-05 Portland, OR – Berbati’s Pan *
11-06 Ashland, OR – The Revolution
11-07 San Francisco, CA – Bimbo’s 365 Club (w/ Earlimart)
11-08 Los Angeles, CA – Spaceland (w/ Ladybug Transistor, Call & Response)
11-10 San Diego, CA – The Casbah
11-11 Tempe, AZ – Stinkweeds
11-12 Tucson, AZ – Plush
11-14 Norman, OK – The Opolis
11-15 Austin, TX – The Mercury

* with The Ladybug Transistor

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

The party starts to wind down and everyone is sitting in lawn chairs around the bonfire. There are at least 3 "marijunana cigarettes" being passed around while everyone kinda just kicks back and gets their chill on. Conversation goes back in forth in a mild manner yet there is always one guy dazed out to the music behind him. That guy would be me today because Ester Drang is the soundtrack for our smokeout.

First question I ask when it’s put on is "Whoa bro. What Pink Floyd cd is this? I’ve never heard this before." The reply "No man. This is Ester Drang’s new cd. It’s super chill brah." So I kick back in my chair once again and ignore the conversation that is passing back and forth amongst the crowd.

"Temple Mount" kicks it off with a wandering guitar that is backed up by an string section fairly quickly. When the string section builds up to a climax, the drums kick in and sweeping sound of keyboard keys are audible in the background of it all. The climax drops off and you are down to a vibraphone, guitar, drums, and bass. You know why this record is called Infinite Keys by the end of the song.

I drop into a fairly interesting conversation during the next song, which is an upbeat song titled "Dead Man’s Point of View." The dialog switches from one person to the next as the mood of this song does, going from upbeat high pitched vocals to a slower beat and lower pitched vocals. The conversation doesn’t last very long but I get out of it feeling incredibly pleased.

I kick back in my chair and take it easy for a bit until I catch a glimpse of this long haired, sandle-claden beauty wearing a pair of jeans and T-shirt that does it’s job. Coincidentally, "No One Could Ever Take Your Face" kicks on right when my eyes set on her. The string section in the beginning plays as she moves the long hair from in front of her face and my infatuation kicks in. The acoustic guitar is the perfect backing as she walks perfectly in time with her feet touching the ground with each snare hit. She sets down next to me in a flimsy wooden chair that looks like it’s from the early 1900′s. We begin to talk and being the charming guy I am, I proceed to make her laugh. Her laughs weave in and out with the acoustic guitar, interlacing piano and vibraphone.

The night continues on with it’s contrast of busy moments and incredibly mellow moments but never proves uninteresting the whole time. Sometimes when I review a cd, I give it a score I know is undeserving. Why do I do it you ask? Because I know that in my mind, it deserves it. This record clicked with me just as well as some of the greats of this year(Cursive, Songs: Ohia, etc.). I stand by this score and urge you to check these guys out.

9/10 Shane

On previous records, Ester Drang’s output had an epic feel to it; it was more drawn-out and atmospheric than that on Infinite Keys. However, the strength and rise-and-fall aesthetic seemed to be more of a focus on density than precise instrumentation. Even as 2001’s Goldenwest brought out more focused songwriting effort, the composition on Infinite Keys is leaps and bounds ahead of their previous efforts. Instead of increasing the complexity, the band has stripped down their sound to create a more ethereal and delicate delivery. Shorter songs and sparser production have acted as blank canvas for the band to develop concrete song structures, rather than what sounds like amorphous jamming.

Mentions of this Ester Drang’s similarity to other bands are abounding in every review, which, undoubtedly is because they are very apparent. The orchestral instrumental swells are tantamount to those of bands like Spiritualized and Mercury Rev and the gentle tones are similar to the sound of bands like Rachel’s and Japancakes. On “No One Could Take Your Face”, Chambers’ voice draws comparisons to Thom Yorke and on “Oceans of You”; it carries tinges of fellow Oklahoman, Wayne Coyne.

Well, with repetition of the same bands in reviews of Infinite Keys, it may bring about the use of the word “rip-off.” But with a list of such great bands that Ester Drang “sounds like”, they’re going to attract interest.

So, perhaps this is imitation, but its not blatant nor overbearing. Infinite Keys in a stylistic sense, is a mingling of the best elements of some of best modern bands. Of course, this takes points away from the record in that it, compared to the aforementioned bands’ actual albums, may just end up acting like between-releases-filler. So, if you need something to give you more of your Radiohead fix even after Hail to the Thief, or you want to see what The Flaming Lips would sound like collaborating with Spiritualized, check out Infinite Keys because Ester Drang come pretty close to pulling it off.

6/10 Robby

Scene points: 7.5/10

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Ester Drang has become known for their ethereal, jam-esque grooves and potent, thought-provoking lyrics. But will their new record, and major label debut, deliver infinite directions for the band’s ideas? By William Scott

Somewhere between the sinews of ordinary sound is a region of the sonic stratosphere where the swell of guitar intertwines with a Rhodes melody, floating effortlessly in an electronic dream. Its boundaries are impermeable to bubblegum throwbacks and mindless minions of the monster rock din.

Here, consciousness and perception are stretched into vibrant tendrils of imagination, and nothing is solid save the notes themselves. And if the mind is open to bold, new expressions of auditory euphoria, the will is captured for a time in an emotional deluge that resonates from the base of the spine through the transparent lid of the third eye. Upon waking, all that remains is the tinkle of distant keys and a yearning desire to defy gravity and dive back in.

Drugs, you say? None, excluding nicotine, thanks?we all have our vices. This, believe it or not, is a band. No, not another amazing offering from the British Isles or an obscure coastal post-rock endeavor; this is a quartet from your own backyard, and their musical prowess and innovative style have launched their careers into the new orbit of national acclaim.

Tulsa sound-spinners Ester Drang have been weaving their potent mesh of electronic rock since the mid-’90s, and now, their diligence to their signature craft has earned them historic status on a national record label.

To provide an idea of just how unconventional this fantastic four is musically, it would suffice to point out that they are anything but a traditional, fixed-frame four-piece ensemble.

Bryce Chambers, the group’s enigmatic pseudo-frontman, provides vocals, guitars, piano and synth to the celestial soup. Kyle Winner, on the other hand, provides bass guitar and bass synth for a hearty, droning foundation. Jeff Shoop immerses the mix in rippling guitar and another generous helping of synth, and James McAlister stirs the tempest with liquid drums, piano, synth and sampled mayhem. To be clear, none have any additional arms with which to play all these instruments at once; however, the versatility expressed here is present not only in the studio, but onstage as well, with all members filling the space of sound to the brim in multiple attitudes throughout each performance. Their musical cohesion transmutes genres into a manifestation of their own finely tuned, sonic sensibilities.

Recently, the canvas widened considerably for the Ester Drang crew when lauded indie label Jade Tree signed them to a multi-album recording deal. Though they have released two prior offerings?the EP That is when he turns us golden (self-produced) and a full-length epic entitled Goldenwest (Burnt Toast)?their Jade Tree debut, appropriately dubbed Infinite Keys, brandishes a honed arsenal of instrumentation and insight that formally elevates the band to a whole new level of artistic promise and potential.

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Oklahoma Music had the chance to chat with the guys when they were back in T-town for a rehearsal in Chamber’s converted garage/jam shack. As I entered the practice space, the band was going through the new album’s title track, and it sounded every bit as impressive as the studio version. I was also immediately taken aback by the large canvas portraits of each band member in close-up, which adorned the walls. Chambers, the reserved and semi-reluctant captain of the Drang ship, has a knack for the visual as well as the auditory arts.

"We were going to use them for an EP cover a few years ago, but that didn’t quite happen," Chambers laughs. "But maybe they’ll pop up some time down the road."

To look at them, the Ester cronies portray the utmost anti-pretension and seem almost too low-key to measure a pulse. Even the discussion of their major indie label breakthrough didn’t rouse the foursome to a furtive display.

"It’s really hard for us to get blown away by anything, for some reason," McAlister says. "I really think that if Johnny Cash came to the door, we’d just be like, ‘Come on in.’" Ester Drang is the first band in Jade Tree’s history to be signed on the merit of demos alone; an impressive feat, to say the least. "It is kind of funny, though," Chambers says. "Normally the way things happen, you’ll be playing a show not knowing who’s in the crowd, and ‘Joe Label Guy’ comes up and says, ‘Hey, you guys are awesome.’ With this deal, we did all this recording and contract signing, and the label had never met us or seen us play until South By Southwest [industry conference]."

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So just how did these 20-something lads from Broken Arrow suburbia get a national record deal? With influences spanning the musical horizon from My Bloody Valentine to Marvin Gaye, and definite style points in common with the Brit-rock scene both past and present, they had a splayed edge to offer at the table. But was it enough to be noticed in a sea of band solicitors? In this case, as the band revealed, it was another example of the power of not what you know, but who.

"They got a demo copy of our first record from the Jade Tree distributor," McAlister recalls. "The strange thing was that I actually sent Jade Tree a copy about the same time. That one got thrown in the trash, but they became interested based on the copy that the distributor gave them. So six months went by and we were beginning plans for our next record. Two weeks before we were to go in the studio, they e-mailed us saying that they had been listening to the demo, they really liked the demo, and they wanted us to do our next record with them."

Goldenwest was heralded locally and via the electronic superhighway as a creative and deliberate epic, as well as a major departure from the local pop platform. Needless to say, critics and fans alike have some big expectations for Infinite Keys. If not an absolute theme, the band concurred, Infinite Keys is an adhesive that represents both stylistic direction and creative process.

"I think it might be a theme, at least musically or subconsciously," Shoop says. "When we started throwing around the infinite keys thing, it was after a lot of the songs had been written, but it came at a time when we were trying to musically piece everything together. We did [as always] a lot of self-mixing of the songs as we were writing them. Basically, I think we were trying to move away from terribly cluttered things."

McAlister picks up the thought and continues, "The way I worked it out in my head was we liked what we said in the songs on Goldenwest?the moods and the feel of it. On Infinite Keys, we, in some ways, tried to convey the same kinds of messages just in more direct ways with the instrumentation ? to get to the same places, but just do it with a little more finesse. We still wanted to be just as visual and picturesque and create the right scenes, but just accomplish that a little more efficiently."

The Ester-fest, in the past, has been categorized wholly as bleeding to the darker side of "shoegazer post-rock." Akin to the recent stellar offering from fellow Okies The Flaming Lips, Infinite Keys does hold some dark recesses, but the overall package has an evidently optimistic tinge, which may cultivate new, evolved ground for the quartet. In addition, the majority of the tracks on the new CD are markedly shorter than those spun on Goldenwest. Could this mean the end of Ester’s ambling epic? The band looks at the change not as a cessation of their previous incarnation, but a crystallization of their musical ideals.

"We just wanted to write songs and not be all about this sit-down, emotional baggage stuff all the time," McAlister says. "Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s great, but I guess we just wanted to do something different."

Chambers adds, "I think the epic feel is still very much a part of the songs. They’re just not so big and never-ending."

> <

The band itself has been a veritable melting pot of personas and addendums over the years. Shoop has only been meshed into the Drang fabric for two years. Yet the band has never lost their intimate focus, with the core trio of Chambers, Winner and McAlister steering their craft into uncharted sonic delirium. The secret, as indicated by the boys themselves, is a certain level of personal elasticity mixed with a natural modicum of band neurosis.

"The three of us kind of have this weird, psychological connection going on," McAlister says. "We have just been playing together for so long that it’s a little strange sometimes. New members may be amazing musicians, but it takes a while to get used to any new addition, especially drummers?and we’ve had like 20."

Their gala studio adventure took them into the footfalls of their mentors. All felt awed by the endless sky now open to them in this brave new world.

"We tracked everything in Denton, Texas, at a place called Echo Lab; then we went to mix it at Soma in Chicago," Chambers says. "Bands like Stereolab and Wilco have recorded at Echo, so it was really exciting for us to work there and see their reels on the shelves and play with the equipment that they used on their records."

"I’m a little bit more of a nerd, and I’m the super fan of bands like Tortoise and John McEntire and the Wilco stuff, probably more than anyone else as far as being a little fanatical about it," McAlister says. "So, I was kind of walking around looking in cupboards for anything weird I could find. But one of the things we actually used that was incredibly productive was a modular synthesizer, an entire wall in size. It was basically the same type of technology that we have, just a lot more complicated. Mikael [Jorgensen] from Wilco was there, and on one song, he helped us patch some drums through it.

"The studio also had a celeste [a percussion instrument]. I had heard celeste samples through a keyboard, but I’d never played one, and that was cool. There was also this super secret loft area where John McEntire kept a lot of drum stuff, and I climbed up there to check it out because, in a way, I think that’s what we were paying for. They also had actual plate reverb there?not the setting, but actual 8-foot metal plates mounted inside a chassis, and it actually sends the audio signal directly through the plate. It’s like a spring reverb in a guitar amp except it’s giant. Every reverb except one on the record was run through it. In fact, there’s only one digital effect on the record. All the delay, reverb, vocals?all of it was analog."

The end product is a latticework of superbly crafted tunes that bear repeated listening without dimming in their appeal. But now that the band has achieved major album support, distribution worldwide, and big studio bang, will the Ester Drang signature of prolific live performance pale in comparison to the Soma mix? According to the band, not a chance in hell.

But which of the disciplines, live or Memorex, is most important to the band now?

"I don’t think you should slouch on either one," says Shoop. "I have a lot of great records by bands that are just terrible live because they’re ? I don’t know, lazy, maybe. And we do try, in many ways, to duplicate what happens on the record in our live performances, but if you just want to hear the exact tracks, listen to the album. There are certain elements, a kind of intangible, that you bring to a live show or else it’s kind of pointless."

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All in all, the quartet is ready for the challenges that await them in the new industry sphere. Though perhaps a tad bit shell-shocked, the guys have done well for themselves. They are currently embarked on a five-month North American label tour in support of Infinite Keys.

"We all feel extremely honored and blessed," McAlister says. "In a sense, it empowers us because we don’t have any real excuses anymore. We went to the same studio with the same equipment used by some of our mentors and recorded our record. And I think it’s good to have had the bar raised by putting ourselves in a realm of people whom we really respect. And if we manage to survive, it will mean that much more to us."

A Live Sonic Boom

Ester Drang has managed to grow out of the rock music wasteland that is Oklahoma and carve their niche into the national scene.

"It’s the Flaming Lips, Starlight Mints, and the Aquaducts (in Oklahoma)," began the band’s musical guru, James McAllister. "There are other bands here but this is as close as you’ll come to a scene. Outside of that, it’s all churches and Oral Roberts University."

This drawback aside, Drang continues to strive forward, writing music for musicians. Sonically dense and multileveled, the web of otherwise nebulous parts weave together to create endless facets of sound that could make Pink Floyd blush. On record, namely with the release of their Jade Tree debut, "Infinite Keys," it hits right on the mark. Live, though, this creates difficulties.

"We use technology to our advantage. Anything we can play live, we play. The rest we throw on a track. People are coming to see us live so we try to do most of it ourselves to make it as interesting as possible."

Ester Drang is playing at the Bluebird Theater on Tuesday, June 17 at 7 p.m. with Starflyer 59, Voices Underwater, and Januar. The show is $10 and is all ages. For more information, go to http://www.nipp.com or http://www.esterdrang.com.

THE STRATFORD 4 + PEDRO THE LION + STARFLYER 59 + ESTER DRANG 21 May 2003: The Great American Music Hall – San Francisco

The marquee above the door of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall may have headlined Pedro the Lion, but there was a second and perhaps greater lure to the May 21 show: the Stratford 4, the moody hometown band who is enjoying favorable press and word-of-mouth across the nation. The gig served as not only the tour finale, but also a homecoming of sorts for the local quartet, who hadn’t been back since embarking on its successful American tour this spring.

At first, the Stratford 4 seemed an odd fit, between the straightforward rock aesthetics of Pedro the Lion and Starflyer 59 — two bands, coincidentally, who have toured together in the recent past and are considered in some circles to be the closest examples the indie/college rock scene has to Christian rock. The S4 isn’t exactly eccentric, but its update of the British shoegazer genre, which thrived in the late ’80s and early ’90s, has enough of a psychedelic haze and retro feel to threaten bill cohesion.

However, the first opening act, Ester Drang, also embodies a forlorn-core sound that recalls S4′s dreaminess. And, if S4 comes across like early- to mid-career Ride, Starflyer 59′s live performance bears many sonic resemblances to that British band’s last two, more throwback-oriented albums. The only thing binding the four bands was their embrace of melodic and emotional rock, dipping into American punk and emo, as well as British pop, from the last two decades.

Oh, and they all played passionately and masterfully. It’s rare to attend a gig with more than three bands and not be bored by at least one of them. But each act on the bill at the Great American Music Hall put on a show as if they were all headliners. Fans seemed to pick over merchandise from every single artist, perhaps picking up a Pedro poster and Ester Drang’s recently released CD.

And speaking of new albums, ironically, each band but Pedro the Lion had a new album to promote. The S4 has a minor CMJ hit in Love and Distortion, its sophomore effort and first release for Jetset Records. Ester Drang was showcasing its debut follow-up, Infinite Keys, the band’s first for Jade Tree, and indie stalwart Starflyer 59 has just discharged the wryly titled Old for Tooth and Nail. Pedro, on the other hand, is still touring behind last year’s not-so-slowcore Control, possibly the best — and darkest — album by the band’s auteur, David Bazan.

When the Stratford 4 hit the stage, the crowd roared louder than it had for the other two acts, signaling a possible loyalty or familiarity with the Bay Area band. Ignoring its first album, XXX, completely, the S4 focused on the highlights of Love and Distortion, which has a surplus of them. It immediately recreated 1989 London with the opener, “Where the Ocean Meets the Eye”, and kicked it up a few notches with the upbeat rocker, “She Married the Birds”. The audience became so quiet, it was almost hard to tell whether it was hyperfocused on the band’s atmospheric grandeur or being lulled to sleep.

The only thing boring about the S4 was the inter-song banter by singer Chris Streng, whose vocals sound like a cross between Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. At one point, he seemed to go on and on, until guitarist Jake Hosek drowned him out with the intro to “The Simple Things Are Taking Over” (a song whose wicked bass line — courtesy of Sheetal Singh, who plays center stage — strongly recalls another moody British band, the Cure). Streng would fill every natural silence with his wordy revelations. Where that works for more contemplative and soundbite-friendly artists like Michael Stipe or Morrissey, it fails for Streng, and you quickly realize his half-disaffected, half-yearning croon sounds cool in spite of his blathering tendencies once the music stops.

The social anxiety isn’t so surprising, though. The S4 are a band very much in love with their craft, but you get the feeling they are unlikely pop heroes. “Everyone’s talkin’ about rock ‘n’ roll, but I just want to stay at home,” Streng sang during “The Simple Things Are Taking Over”, and his depression continued during “12 Months”, when he sings about going to bed in September, only to finally venture outside in October.

But rock ‘n’ roll is the only Prozac he needs, as the band glorified its influences though the nostalgic, epic “Telephone”, Streng belting out lines about going out, dancing every night, and listening to bands like Belle & Sebastian, Bob Dylan and the Stones, to name a few. Ending with a squall of guitar noise that recalled dive-bombing fighter jets, the S4 came down from its euphoric highs having played a near-flawless set.

Hopefully Streng was watching when Pedro the Lion walked on stage. Dave Bazan isn’t the most charismatic or enthusiastic singer-songwriter — most of his songs are sung in the same deadpanned octave — but he can effortlessly engage a crowd with his own banter. His shtick relies on simply asking the audience if they have any questions, and answering them as affably and jocularly as possible. Some of the results are worth listing here:
Q: What record are you most artistically proud of?
A: The next one.
Q: Who was your favorite Transformer?
A: Well, Optimus Prime was the most bitchin’?but I think I was stuck with the Go-Bots.
Q: Is Pedro the Lion a thinly veiled Christian reference?
A: The first time I abbreviated it, I nearly shit myself. Then, I stopped taking myself so seriously, so I started putting PTL on buttons.
Q: What’s with the guns on the T-shirts?
A: Guns just seem to be in again.

Bazan wasn’t the only witty one in the house. When he explained how Winona Ryder met him after one of his recent gigs, a crowd member asked if she had stolen his wallet. Band and audience simultaneously burst into hysterics.

This levity offset some of the gravitas in Bazan’s music, which can get quite heavy — musically and lyrically speaking. “I could never divorce you without a good reason,” he lets fall out in “Options”, begging the question, who else would ever say that? Some of the scorned bitterness echoed that of Elvis Costello, though Bazan endeared himself through his articulate, humane and yet still smirk-worthy delivery; he neither assails nor whines, and his ruminations on murder and relationship bust-ups can be outright hilarious. Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional could stand to learn something from him in the thwarting-earnestness department.

Needless to say, toward the end of its hour-long set, Pedro the Lion had the gig-goers eating out of its hands. This may be the Stratford 4′s town, but it was clearly Bazan’s crowd inside the Music Hall.

His pal in Starflyer 59, singer/guitarist Jason Martin, wasn’t bothering himself with a whole lot of small talk or vocal clarity. The music was first and foremost on he and his bandmates’ minds, as the musicians charged through their direct and visceral set, infecting with dual-guitar-and-synthesizer-led melodies and charging with highway-drive rhythms. Keyboards wailed like Moog sirens; guitars chugged through staccato-riffed verses that recall your car’s ignition when it’s having trouble starting. Most of the tracks hailed from Old, and oddly enough, they felt more accessible than the act’s previous material.

But, despite SF59′s wall of sound, it never overpowered the audience. The band didn’t seem to visibly move it, either, as it displayed nothing more affectionate than polite applause and the occasional, obligatory whoop. This may have been the result of a relatively groove-free set; the rhythms never seemed to warrant more than a rock-critic head-bob or steady foot-tap.

Ester Drang may have been the revelation here. It isn’t big on physical exertion; like the S4, it seems to minimally move or even look up, caught up in its own vibe. But its synth haze, mellotron accentuations, geek-love sentimentalism and Urban Outfitter-approved melodicism did not go unnoticed by the early arrivals below the stage. It’s not as dreamy and seratonin-addled as, say, fellow indie rock band Elliott, nor is it as self-conscious as the S4. Rather, it seemed to hit the happy medium with every song, with genuine affectation. If its showing May 21 was any indication, Pedro the Lion’s labelmate is sure to become someone’s favorite band real soon.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

"Wispy." By definition, it means "someone or something thin, frail, or slight; A thin or faint streak or fragment, as of smoke or clouds; a fleeting trace or indication, a hint, a suggestion." I don’t think I could possibly come up with a better word to describe Infinite Keys, the second album by Broken Arrow, Oklahoma’s Ester Drang.

I guess making such grand, beautiful, wind-blown music comes natural to natives of Oklahoma. While I normally shy away from arguments that link a band’s sound to its natural habitat, in the case of Ester Drang, I have to make an exception. If you drive through the Oklahoma countryside, you’ll encounter a lovely variety of hills, trees, and flatlands. Basically…it’s barren. Sure, there are some cities here and there, but Oklahoma seems to be a bit, well…desolate. It’s kind of like Utah with more tornadoes. I remember driving through the state and thinking, "I’m glad I don’t live here…it’s so….flat."

Infinite Keys is an album that’s most definitly sunburned and wind-blown, and though their sound may seem a tad familiar (especially if you own records by Coldplay or Radiohead), Ester Drang never fall guilty to the charge of ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ Though Infinite Keys is cold, cool, and distant, it is by no means perfect. Ester Drang hit a melodic, stoned-out groove (thanks in part to the loving hand of Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel’s Matt Pence, who knows a thing or two about stoned-out grooves) but they never leave it, and as such the songs tend to run together; if you don’t pay attention, you won’t notice that they’ve changed songs, and singer Bryce Chambers sings so lightly, it’s occasionally hard to understand what he’s saying. It’s a bit problematic, too; you’ll hear really pretty music, but it would be easy not to notice, as Infinite Keys just floats away into the air and just doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Despite the fact that the music runs together so seamlessly, Infinite Keys is certainly far from a bad record. True, if you’ve spent any time with Parachutes or OK Computer, you’ll understand at least part of where Ester Drang is coming from. Even though the album’s kind of slippery, songs such as "All the Feeling" and "One Hundred Times" shiver and sparkle so nicely, it makes you wish that ‘modern rock’ radio wasn’t such a closed-off world, for both would make wonderful summertime radio hits. All in all, Infinite Keys is a wonderfully pleasant, chilling, cool listen.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

After a debut entitled "Goldenwest", this four piece band from Oklahoma signed to Jade Tree, and "Infinite Keys" is able to prove how Ester Drang are a great new starter for this label. The music on this record is what any critic would call indie rock and I guess I have to follow them: with an exception anyway. Ester Drang play some of the finest indie rock music you will ever get to hear; it is clear this band really worked so hard on any piece of any song, and demo after demo they got what you will held in your hands: an extraordinary piece of rock music, nine tracks of pure passion, emotional moments and feelings that it’s hard to feel on any other album. Songs like "The Temple Mount", "No One Could Ever Take Your Face", "All The Feeling" and the closer "I don’t Want to Live ( in a world of infinite keys)" show the great capacity of Ester Drang to play songs that are actually complete: nothing on "Infinite Keys" is out of tune, or wrong.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Infinite Keys, the second full-length album by Ester Drang, is a complex, layered, thirty-nine minute soundscape of nu-orchestral rock. Violins sigh, guitars twang, cymbals chime, robots go beep, all with the aspiration of surging and fading itself into the semblance of tragic beauty and good tunes. But excessive details provide the musical equivalent to a blob. Infinite Keys sounds more tin and tedious than beautiful.

The album begins with "The Temple Mount", a moody swell of violin crescendos, vibraphone twinkles, and minor feedback squeals while lethargic drums hold the tempo down. It sounds off key at moments. The singers un-poetic, whiney inflections make it even more difficult. The song seems overdone, the melody is lost under all the layers. The song "Oceans of You" is slightly more discernable but suffering the same ailments. The ditty is spoiled by a sporadic tumble of vocals, guitars, and drums. Vocal inflections reach potency when the singer mentions "existence". "If They Only Knew" may be the album’s only example of discipline. It avoids the reckless convergence of off-tune instruments. An acoustic guitar strums over soft whales of a violin while a two touch tune is tapped on a piano. The song respects nu-rock ambitions and sustains a lethargic pep. It is not a great song, but its an acceptable one.

I can envision a moment when Ester Drang’s Infinite Keys might be appropriate. In a bar with black walls, a crowd of exuberant drunks finish their sixth and realize they have run out of money. Quiet and sleepy-eyed, their descent begins. Its time to go home but no one can move. Then the band steps on the dark stage, the lights stay out. The slouching, sombre band members begin to play, swaying over the feeble crowd. Sobriety becomes poignant.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

"Infinite Keys" is the first release for the Oklahoma based Ester Drang on Jade Tree Records. Prior to working with Jade Tree the band released a full-length (Goldenwest)with Philly based label Burnt Toast Vinyl. The band is currently on tour with labelmates Pedro the Lion.

It’s about time this band have gotten some more attention in the indie rock world. A friend had recommended that I check out this band at the Cornerstone Festival in 2000. I was immediately impressed by the scope of this band. Here we are 3 years later…

"Infinite keys" is the band’s debut for Jade Tree Records. This isn’t much of a departure from the band’s last full-length on Burnt Toast Vinyl, however the majority of the songs on this newest disc are a bit shorter and more formulaic than it’s predesessor. This isn’t a bad thing. But some fans may be surprised by the change in song lengths. At any rate, Ester Drang still create beautifully layered landscapes of sound. Attached to lazy beats that make your head bob you’ll find bass, guitar, rhodes and the occasional spattering of saxophone or instruments not included in the band’s standard arsenal.

The disc starts off with the almost chaotic sounding "Temple Mount" then from there steadies itself on a path of melancholy/dreamy atmosphere. Lyrically the album seems anchored around the band’s spiritual beliefs without coming off as cheesey or forced.

Grade: B

Interview with Jeff Shoop (Ester Drang)

Ester Drang have been on my radar for a few years now. Now, I’m not saying that as an “I knew these guys WAY before you did”, it was actually by chance that I saw them. But for some reason, they have always stayed in the back of mind my. I would always wonder, “what Ester Drang was up to?”. It was kind of strange. There are not a lot of bands I see live that stick with me for years down the road.

It’s could have been the awkward stage presence of singer Bryce Chambers . It could have been the sweltering heat outside. But, most likely, it was their amazing melodies, and their fresh take on the shoegazer genre.

A few years have past, and the band in question has produced a few albums. They have changed their sound with each release, but not in an attempt to ride the next wave. But rather, they were seemingly always looking for a new sound to keep their fans on their toes.

With the bands third album (second full length) they have gone from attempting to create a new sound, to perfecting it. Infinite Keys finds the band at their most refined, their most mature… and it finds a new home with the Jade Tree label. I got the chance to put a few questions to Jeff Shoop (Guitars/Synths) while the band was on tour with label mates Pedro The Lion and with Starflyer 59 .

Jake Haselman – You guys have changed a lot over the past three albums, has it been a natural change, or was this by decision?

Jeff Shoop – I would say a bit of both. There was never a master plan of arriving at this sound of ours, I think that has been a natural progression. At the same time, we are conscience of not wanting to make the same record over again.

JH – How did you guys go from Burnt Toast to Jade Tree?

JS – Someone jade tree trusted sent them a copy of Goldenwest and they dug it, and emailed us we talked a few times but it never worked out for them come see us play. We sent them a few demos of new songs and they dug those and that was essentially that. It all came together really quickly, then we didn’t meet anyone from the label until SXSW 4 months after we signed.

JH – Does the bigger label bring more stress on the band?

JS – I don’t feel stressed….it’s sorta nice they do a lot of work and free us up to largely just play music.

JH – Do you think being on Jade Tree will give you more ‘cred’ right of the bat with new listeners?

JS – Maybe. I guess there is a better chance of someone giving it a try just because it has the tree on the back. They’ve spent many years developing their credibility…. so, yeah

JH – Do you think David Bazan made the road from ‘small Christian audience’ to ‘big indie label’ easier for bands like you?

JS – I guess. We don’t try to concern ourselves with segregating audiences
Our music is for everybody. I think Dave feels the same way.

JH – Who do you hate to be compared to?

JS – I only dislike comparisons that are used as an easy write-off. Like bands that have a piano and singer getting compared to Ben folds. It’s just lazy. So if someone has a good reason for a comparison then I promise not to hate you…probably

JH – How hard is it to translate your new, broader sound to a live show?

JS – Takes a bit of head scratching just to figure out who should be playing what and what sort of technology should be employed to create it. Then it keeps you busy, but it’s not bad.

JH – Is it just you four out on the road? You don’t take any extra musicians along on tour do you?

JS – It’s just the four of us now. On this tour we have had Casey from Pedro The Lion play some extra percussion, but that just sort of happened. We don’t have immediate plans to take anyone else, but it could happen in the future.

JH – Was it important to have ‘live’ strings instead of just keyboards? And did it make writing more difficult?

JS – Yeah we wanted those to be as organic as possible. Money becomes an issue, but we like to keep the real sounds real and the more electronic sounds electronic for a better contrast. I guess you could think of it as the McBLT container – keep the hot side hot and the cold side cold…until you figure out that Styrofoam is bad for the environment.

JH – What is the worst thing about touring for you guys?

JS – Lotto tickets. Days off with nothing to do. Long drives. Waiting.

JH – Do you feel confident enough to headline a tour, or do you still feel more comfortable in an opening role?

JS – Confident in playing sure. It’s just we want to spend some time playing for as many people as possible so they’ll come back when we come through headlining.

JH – What do you want listeners to feel after hearing the new album?

JS – Maybe a few mixed reactions – relaxed, yet challenged / reflective, yet hopeful.

JH – You guys have been around for a while… do you see a blurring off the line between the Christian indie scene and ‘mainstream’ indie?

JS – Again, our music is for everyone. So yeah, I suppose. I think it ought to be just fans of music regardless of belief systems. Because no matter where you go you probably wont totally agree with everything another person thinks, so why shut yourself off from sharing and experiencing?

JH – That seems to be a problem in today’s music scene though, don’t you think?

JS – Yeah, preconceptions from any angle are pretty foolish, yet prevalent. People don’t want to give things an honest chance before forming some sort of opinion about them – but I guess that speaks to much bigger social problem than just music.

JH – Who are some of the artists you guys look up to?

JS – Lots of people for different things. So any list of mine would not be exhaustive. But completely off the top of my head I dig – Neil young, Marvin Gaye, The Verve, The Roots, Brain Wilson, George Harrison, Talib Quali – I have no idea?

PW’S PICKS FOR THE WEEK

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

Ester Drang

A gauzy, daydream atmosphere surrounds Infinite Keys, the second album by Oklahoma’s little-known Ester Drang. When taking in the shuddering buildups and cloudy softness of the opening “The Temple Mount,” it’s hard to believe that the band’s first album was reportedly a lot vaguer and sleepier. Throughout Keys, instruments grandly blend together, suddenly swell in and out of focus, and reappear like specters, making it all the more difficult to get a handle on exactly what’s happening. Bryce Chambers’ morose, moody singing recalls Thom Yorke, but his voice often functions as just another sound in the soupy mix, buried in blurry effects nearly past the point of recognition. This is a band to simply sink into, which is what must’ve happened to the folks at Jade Tree, who signed Ester Drang after hearing nothing more than a mere demo. That tidbit alone should speak volumes about Keys’ weird allure. (D.W.)

7:30pm. $8. With Pedro the Lion + the Stratford 4. All ages. First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. 800.594.8499. www.r5productions.com

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

For the follow up to 2001′s widely-touted "Goldenwest" and a move to Jade Tree, Ester Drang’s founding frontman Bryce Chambers has initiated a new lineup, but his group’s lush and experimental approach to indie rock remains unchanged. Home state legends the Flaming Lips continue to have some influence the Tulsa, Okla.-bred Drang, but "Infinite Keys" finds Chambers, bassist Kyle Winner, guitarist Jeff Shoop, and drummer/pianist James McAlister pumping vibrant new life into a shoegazer sound left for dead a decade ago.

The dreamy, skilled sound collage of strings and guitars found on "The Temple Mount" creates the mood of the set, easing into the intricate, jazzy pop of "Dead Man’s Point of View." Chambers’ vocals — often resembling the range of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke — sound ideal on "Oceans of You," where a spacey sadness gives way to a guitar rock attack akin to the bulk of "The Bends."

Glistening 4AD bands like the Pale Saints and the Cocteau Twins come to mind as the lilting "One Hundred Times" plays out, soon giving way to the lovely and heartfelt pop of "The Greatest Thing." Although the piano touches accenting "No One Could Ever Take Your Face" are distinct, it’s a sluggish exercise among the eight other high caliber tunes here.

"I Don’t Want To Live (In a World of Infinite Keys)" is as desperate as it is intricate, even boasting a flute solo. Buried treasures like the uplifting, McCartney-influenced "If They Only Knew" and the brilliant "All the Feeling" — complete with dueling xylophone and piano — assure that Ester Drang is much more than a mere shoegazer revival outfit.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Goes Well With: Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer, making out with your significant other

Ester Drang’s latest, Infinite Keys, is infinitely pleasing—a competent ambient rock record that evokes solace. Occasionally sandblasted with energetic pseudo-rock, the album is thankfully absent of anything annoyingly aggressive. As with so many vocalists nowadays, Bryce Chambers’ crooning can clearly draw comparisons to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in that both warblers’ tones improve the quality of the music. Throughout, Ester Drang offers mature musicianship, blending keys and guitars into melodic arrangements that carry you like so many puffy, little clouds.

On “Oceans of View” the band cranks up the EKG rating: alternating from smashing cymbals to hypnotic bass lines, the song proves this pony’s capable of turning more than one trick. This is the record that compliments a late night glass of red wine, the first glass poured during cerebral conversation, the last poured during a kiss partially inspired by your savvy music selection.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Legend has it that Oklahoma-based psych pop quartet Ester Drang signed to Jade Tree Records on the strength of their demos, if the band’s press kit is to be believed. And while that’s a little like being the best bullfighter in Alaska, it certainly doesn’t lessen the fact that Ester Drang’s Jade Tree debut Infinite Keys is a beautifully crafted, lush addition to the indie pop canon.

The band, and especially lead singer/guitarist Bryce Chambers, tends to wears its influences on its sleeve. The most obvious description of Infinite Keys is that it sounds like Wayne Coyne collaborating with Radiohead to record Wilco’s Summerteeth . In fact, the spectre of fellow Oklahoman and Flaming Lips frontman Coyne looms large over many of Infinite Keys ‘s tracks. Album opener "Temple Mount" opens with a low engine rumble, preparatory violins, a doom-tinged guitar, and finally Chambers’ ethereal voice. It’s a recipe that is repeated on nearly every track, but to the band’s credit, they do it well.

It takes a moment to lock into Ester Drang’s orchestration, but one you’re keyed (sorry) into Chambers’ vision, the music washes over you and it’s simply thrilling. While less sprawling than Goldenwest , their 2001 space rock debut, Infinite Keys is still chockablock with moments of grandeur. To wit, Jeff Shoop’s piano finds its way into "Temple Mount", and the song soars like a plane flying over the Grand Canyon in an IMAX movie. The jazzed-up horns on "Dead Man’s Point of View" pop up and leave as quick as they entered. Meanwhile, watery guitars wash over the appropriately titled "Oceans of You". These songs are so thick and lush one practically needs a machete to navigate them. If only the vocals could keep up with the instrumentation.

The band has a knack of well-crafted pop, in addition to the expansive stuff (a la the aforementioned Wilco). "One Hundred Times" approaches straight-up pop and (features a killer sweeping guitar solo) before giving way to the jangly "The Greatest Thing", which unabashedly cribs from the Flaming Lips’ Clouds Taste Metallic (again with the Coyne). Chambers’ fuzzed-out, whiny-but-warm vocals never come closer to Coyne than they do on "The Greatest Thing". Lips-prints are all over "If They Only Knew", too. With its pastoral guitar coupled with bleeps ‘n’ bloops, pianos, and violins, it’s comes across as "It’s Summertime" redux (from the Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots ).

Infinite Keys ends strong with the quasi-title track "I Don’t Want to Live (In a World of Infinite Keys)", which has instrumentation so compelling and epic, it’s almost a letdown when Chambers’ vocals arrive. The song also brings into focus an important point about Ester Drang. For all the bells and whistles (sometimes literally) in the band’s kitchen-sink approach to indie chamber pop, never once do they collapse into cacophony. Other bands (again, Wilco and Radiohead) are lauded for their ventures into musical entropy, and deservedly so, but let’s give props to Ester Drang for holding their gorgeous songs together.

So where does all this leave us? Between Ester Drang, Flaming Lips and the poppier-but-similarly-minded Starlight Mints, there must be something in Oklahoma’s water supply that inspires lush, off-kilter indie rock. And more to the point, Infinite Keys finds in Ester Drang a band tightening its focus, while losing none of its beauty and expressiveness.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

I’ve been a fan of Ester Drang for some time now. My first intro to the band was a live show at an outdoor fest. It was hot, I was sweaty and nasty (having not showered for a few days in the middle of summer will do that do you), but I still drug my self over to the equally smelly tent. From the first notes that rang out, I was transported to a different place entirely. A dream state between white noise and lush scenery.

While they have changed quite a bit since that hot summer day in 97’, the essence of the sound remains. Ester Drang have grown up in more ways than one. Not only have they grown up in years, but they have also matured immensely in their song writing abilities. With Infinite Keys (the bands second full length) these Oklahoma boys have stepped past the realm of shoegazer that they started out in. They have fully traded in the feedback soaked melodies of their first EP (That is When He Turns Us Golden), and have honed the ‘adult’ sound they first attempted on their last full length (Golden West). This is definitely their best work to date.

I know that it’s easiest to describe bands, especially bands people might not be familiar with, by comparing them to other bands. Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair in this case. Everyone will draw the obvious comparisons to Radiohead and Spiritualized, but I don’t think it does the band justice. Those bands have achieved so much in their careers; they have most everyone’s respect and admiration. To place a band’s second full length, and for all intensive purposes the first album most people have heard, up to those standards is a disservice to any band.

If you like lush melodies, and like them to ring through clean instrumentation, this is going to be something that will trip your trigger. There is not much more I can say about it. It’s a well-done album, produced as though they had a million dollar budget, and the songs are the strongest these guys have done yet. Fans of music you can get lost in will need to give Ester Drang an ear. If you like for your music to create intimate settings, and push feeling to the foreground, this might be something to search out. Two words, “Get It!”

Oh, one more thing… if you can listen to “If They Only Knew” and not think it’s one of the best songs released this year… well, I feel sorry for you.

Ester Drang [I]Infinite Keys[/I] Review

Delaware record label Jade Tree continues to put out albums that diverge from the emo tag they were slapped with a few years ago. The latest, Ester Drang, hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the same hometown of Hanson, but their music recalls the work of Mogwai or Radiohead more so than that sweet, young-thing pop trio. There is an introspective sound on the Infinite Keys that ebbs and flows, at once verging on improvisation only to crash back towards structure and a previously introduced melody. Moody shoegazers take note: it seems someone else out there understands your pain.