Stars Like Fleas
Sun Lights Down on the Fence
f Stars Like Fleas’ promotional photos are anything to be believed, then at every moment that one of the principal members of the group (Shannon Fields (music) and Montgomery Knott (words)) comes into focus, the other becomes blurry. This trend is not limited to photography, however. On their second record, following the ultra-limited Took the Ass for a Drive, the group trades the focus effortlessly between one and another. Not that this is a two person show, the duo is joined by no less than 21 others from a whole host of bands, including members and ex-members of Other Dimensions in Music, TEST, No Neck Blues Band, Papa M, Out Hud, Gold Sparkle Band, Mercury Rev and At the Drive In. The roster of talent is enormous and, luckily, masterfully arranged by Fields.
Taking hours of sonic material, Fields whittled it down to a still somewhat bloated 70 minute running time. But what a 70 minutes it is. Musically speaking, the album moves in territory somewhere between Robert Wyatt’s brilliant Cuckooland and later Talk Talk. But where Mark Hollis and company traded in the judicious economy of music, Stars Like Fleas trades in the oppositional binary—filling the sonic palette to the brim at every opportunity. It’s a pure fusion of the organic and digital that excites, sounding like little else that has come before it. The elements used to create it are numerous, but usually simple acoustic accoutrements: flutes, clarinets, saxophones, guitars, pianos and a host of others. On the other hand, Fields is frequently credited with using a sampler and doing electronic processing. Luckily, the singular vision of Fields is realized throughout, tying the disparate instruments together into a tight finished product.
The centerpiece of the album is “on a generous day”, coming in the middle of the album and clocking in at 13 minutes. It begins with the solo singing of Knott, overdubbing two lines on top of one another. It soon morphs into a simple wheezing groove, placing Knott’s vocals underneath and interspersed within the beat. This opening movement continues for some time, allowing Knott to narratively confuse and feint towards coherency, never quite reaching it. The second movement transforms the track into a controlled free jazz freak-out, ala Miles Davis’ On the Corner, where the improvisations are grounded by a controlled undercurrent (a drum machine) that rarely changes. This middle movement gives away to the final section, by way of a plaintive acoustic guitar melody, introducing again Knorr, who revisits some of the same thematic material of the opening movement.
The lyrics, throughout the album, are scattered thoughts and phrases, all revolving around central ideas and themes. Each track is a world unto itself, but even within each track little seems to connect the entire narrative. Freud seems to be a major influence (Knott even goes so far to mention his name in “i’ve pumped your stomach and broken through your skin”), but the effect of the lyrics are more like reading every third page in a psychosexual memoir—confusing, scary and altogether intriguing. Either way, Knott’s voice may be a stopping point for some, as his lyrics are invariably delivered in a slurred Texas drawl, evoking TV on the Radio’s combined vocalists or Hollis at various times during the album.
And this can wear on the listener, over the course of 70 minutes. As can the overwhelming sonic detail put on display throughout the album. At times, it seems like there is simply too much to take in in merely one listen—which is ultimately its selling point, as well. For listeners looking for what Talk Talk would sound like if they were working in the dust of Texas and in the 21st century, Stars Like Fleas is the closest approximation to it. For listeners looking for easy answers, Stars Like Fleas offers few.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - JANUARY 4 - JANUARY 10, 2004