I imagine there are big ol’ skies in Oklahoma. Though I’ve never been there, I associate the labor-conquers-all state with ridiculously wide expanses of blue that at times seem oppressive in their beauty. I can only assume these atmospheric conditions, though: I’ve not been to Oklahoma, only its neighbor Kansas, and that state is endless from one side to the other. I was on one road during my entire drive through the state, but as I looked left and right I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or let myself fall apart at the site of so much repetition made real.
So in the spirit of full disclosure, you should know now that I wrote this review with a sleeveless promotional CD and had no idea that the cover art for Infinite Keys is in fact a photograph of a blue sky over a green field. I only saw that afterward. And though it does make me want to trust my instincts– maybe go into graphic design as a second career?– it had no bearing on the review as written. Onward:
Ester Drang are a five-piece from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and seem to be writing music based on cloud formations. I imagine them waiting patiently for a patch of white to explode, for a break in the otherwise steady weather, allowing them a chance to experiment with dynamics in response. Since 1995 they’ve put out a single, a now out-of-print EP, and last-year’s somewhat lauded LP Goldenwest on Burnt Toast. With each release they’ve been charting a pretty straight path toward Infinite Keys, their first full-length for Jade Tree. And here, in the present, the preordained Ester-Drang cosmology doesn’t shake much.
From the first to the final fade, the music is a whisper. Each piece washes in dusty sheets, as though the band is literally assigning particular notes and durations to patterns in the sky. If that were the case, it could end up as a form of environmental music like the work of Chicago sound artist Collin Olan who, for example, inserted two contact microphones into a block of ice, submerged the block in water, and recorded the sounds it made as it melted. I like that– I like theory– but I can’t invent intentions for Ester Drang and, ultimately, they don’t seem to have such lofty or eccentric goals. I think, really, they really just kind of dig Radiohead. Or a section Radiohead as re-interpreated by The Gloria Record. Here and there, I’ve read comparisons to The Flaming Lips, and I don’t get it. Though they share the same home state, and in the past collaborated with Steven Drozd on a single, the folks pushing Ester Drang as participants in some kind of Oklahoma-grown sound are stretching things to fill an easily processed critical canvas.
"One Hundred Times" is where they’re most openly taking from Radiohead; it’s also when the stock elements of their wistfulness gel temporarily. The vocal lines cascade and plummet, little bleeps and buzzes make sense in relation to the overall density of the music, and, more importantly, there are enough pauses, build-ups, sputters, and redirections to make you feel like you’re flying somewhere, leaping over your mundane town in a single bound. "Oceans of You" is the indie-rock version of Coldplay, shouting gracefully about "problems" fading. Incandescent shit– I can imagine them performing this with an orchestra at the Grammys: lights flicker, the orchestra blows a fuse (some dude passes out in row one!), and as I watch from my living room floor I wonder if I’m supposed to feel something. The music is pretty– it’s difficult to deny that– but so are the sounds of cars driving by your house at 4AM, or how the world muffles a bit when you put your ear up to a puddle.
When your music is light and airy, you need to make sure it’s compelling. While Radiohead are often bogged down by over-ambitious themes, they’re at least constructing a poetics of experimentation, as well as a cogent if somewhat scattered message beyond their plush walls of sound. All I can cull from this music are empty exercises in pseudo-orchetral ear candy. Which is fine to a point: Sigur Ros (an easy comparison) move people to tears without the majority of their audience comprehending a single word of their lyrics, and like Ester Drang, they aren’t exactly breaking new ground. Unlike Ester Drang, their stuff is a gale of goddamn triumph; Infinite Keys rumbles by like a draft through a cracked window, a tiny shift in the atmosphere, leaving only the vaguest of impressions.