The Music Box's #15 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by John Metzger
Sophomore albums are frequently problematic, and surviving them is key to a groupís longevity. While it would have been perfectly understandable if, in the wake of the critical success that greeted Logic Will Break Your Heart, The Stills explicitly had applied an identical formula to its follow-up Without Feathers, itís also quite likely that had it done so, the ensemble would have become lost in the never-ending stream of up-and-coming bands that are fitted with monikers beginning with the word "the." Not that there arenít similarities between The Stillsí two endeavors. After all, its music not only has remained rooted in the same basic tenets of í80s rock that permeated its debut ó that is, U2, The Smiths, and The Cure ó but also the themes of love, death, and loneliness have continued to pervade its lyrics. Nevertheless, thereís something bigger and bolder about Without Feathers, and in essence, itís a simultaneous refinement and broadening of the collectiveís artistic vision.
With its loosely-knit reflections upon life and love in a post-9/11 world, Logic Will Break Your Heart was, whether by intention or not, The Stillsí first stab at creating a concept album. On Without Feathers, the band fulfills its objective in ways that go beyond the narrative flow of its songsí titles (with In the Beginning, In the End, and Interlude being the most obvious among them). The effortís opening line ("this story ends in bloodshed") gives away its conclusion, and sure enough the outingís love-torn central characters are left lying "with open sores" upon their living room floor. Granted, the tale of a romantic entanglement gone awry is hardly groundbreaking, but The Stills succeeds in keeping its ruminations sounding remarkably fresh.
All of this, of course, would be for naught, if the music didnít suitably support the bandís expansive aspirations, and itís here where The Stills has made its greatest strides. Without question, the sonic layers of Logic Will Break Your Heart were filled with dramatic tension, but on Without Feathers, the ensemble shades its lyrics with cinematic overtures that are larger than life. Itís clear that, in this regard, The Stills has studied U2ís canon ó and The Joshua Tree, in particular ó quite closely. It also has learned its lessons remarkably well, and as a result, its magisterial arrangements rise and fall in similar fashion. Never is this more apparent than on the immediately captivating charge of In the Beginning, during which, the collective sends a galloping cascade of guitars tumbling over a crest of bass and drums, straight into the outstretched arms of an organís spiritual glow. Elsewhere, the group effectively blends Simon and Garfunkel-ish harmonies with a Beatle-esque melodic structure to sculpt the melancholy Oh Shoplifter, and it transforms the sad-eyed, piano intro of It Takes Time into an anthem, complete with hand claps and horns, that finds common ground among Bruce Springsteen, Phil Spector, and The Ramones. If there were any lingering doubts that The Stillsí ambitions are huge, Without Feathers ought to provide the proof necessary to silence them. Better still, it does so without sinking into maudlin mediocrity.
Without Feathers is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box