When a band makes music that is repeatedly, almost invariably, described as “ethereal” or “dreamy,” it’s fair to worry whether things might fall too far into the soup. Although the signifiers that often provoke these descriptions — heavy reverb; breathy, obscured vocals; layered effects; wading tempos — can produce a soaring, satisfying cumulative effect, the pitfalls are just as clear: Focus too much on piling up and tweaking lush sounds, an album can end up as a sort of unformed mass of pretty stuff.
Greg Hughes, the primary songwriter, producer, instrumentalist and lyricist of Still Corners, is conscious of this tightrope walk. He spoke to Sub Pop, the label releasing Strange Pleasures, about his evolving approach: “I started taking the production more seriously this time; instead of listening to records and going, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ I actually studied everything: sound absorption, speaker placement, mixing, mastering, microphones…I see it principally as a widescreen pop album, clear, with upfront vocals…There aren’t a ton of layers this time; everything has its place and is focused.” This thoughtful, balanced method shines through on Strange Pleasures.
Hughes smartly juxtaposes the more traditionally “dreamy” elements of Still Corners’ sound with some crisper textures and more insistent rhythms. On album opener “The Trip,” a delay-heavy, snaking, spacey guitar lead and Tessa Murray’s washed-out, wispy vocals are anchored by prominent, raking acoustic guitar and a krautrock-like pulse. “Beginning to Blue” has wonderfully inside-out sounding production with wobbly, reverse-flanged keyboards and backward cymbal crashes, like a loping, screwed “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Hughes’s songwriting and production style still skews sweeping and epic: On single “Fireflies,” the synths stack — pillowy pads, twinkling upper-octave melody lines and punchy synth-bass — and are buoyed by Murray’s vampish vocals. With Strange Pleasures, Hughes has carefully crafted a set with songs that inspire grandeur while remaining taut and gripping — an impressive feat.