On Nausea, the second full-length from Craft Spells, singer/songwriter Justin Vallestros is grasping for a new sophistication. Gone are the groove-driven, guitar-and-drum-machine pop songs of 2011′s Idle Labor. Recorded in a proper studio in Seattle, Nausea feels far more somber. Vallestros wrote the album’s songs on piano rather than guitar, and the decision trickles through the record. “First Snow” hinges on a floating piano figure for its main melody, and “Dwindle” opens with circular chords. They’re piano-first decisions: The notes are short and they decay quickly, and there’s a clear distinction between each right-hand melody and its left-hand accompaniment. The jangly guitar lines and rhythmic bass plucks of previous Craft Spells releases fall in favor of soft strumming and bass lines that walk calmly beneath each track. On the whole, it is a much slower record.
While recording Nausea, Vallestros was joined by band mates Javier Suarez and Andy Lum and producer/engineer Dylan Wall, and the additional space opens up new possibilities for song structure and orchestration. Lead single “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide” flips between airy guitar melodies and a full string section in between verses. Elsewhere, though, Vallestros feels uncomfortable with his own sound. “Twirl” is the only track on the record that attempts the tempo of Idle Labor, but the chorus hook falters without the pulse and bounce of a drum machine. It’s easy to assume that moving from the bedroom to the studio also means growing into stronger work, but on Nausea, that isn’t necessarily the case.