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Light Heat Walks Into “The Mirror”

Light Heat
The Mirror
Ribbon Music

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It’s been almost a decade since Philly auteur Quentin Stoltzfus issued a record, the surpassingly good We’re Already There, released in 2005 by the Stoltzfus-led Mazarin, a band for whom the phrase ‘sorely under-appreciated’ could have been coined. Not that he’s been idle in the interim. Aside from producing others (Sunset’s Gold Dissolves to Grey in 2009), building a world-class recording studio and putting in hours as a professional mover, Stoltzfus has also, clearly, been busy gestating a whole new passel of rock-pop gems.

The word ‘psych’ was often tossed about in reference to Mazarin and yeah, I guess so. There was a credible lysergic cadence now and again, a handful of tie-dyed threads were woven in if a bit obliquely, but in the main the band was simply grade-A American indie, parts power-pop, parts avant-jangle, with the occasionally fuzzy sludgy track here, a throbbing instrumental there, and places where the fire in its rock ‘n’ roll belly had a pre-Arcadian urgency to it. As it turns out, not a lot has changed since Mazarin was phased out except his bandmates, Stoltzfus this time enlisting most of The Walkmen for his new project Light Heat.

That choice of band name can’t help but imply a certain iconic late 60’s outfit with the initials VU, and immediately on The Mirror, rather against all odds, the opening churn of “Dance To The Common Light” suggests that indeed our Quentin has turned over a seedy new New York leaf. And in a sense that’s true. Even as what is doubtless an intended nod to the Velvets in those first few measures resolves into a chill-inducing pop bass melody that VU could neither have considered nor imagined, the tone’s been set, we’re definitely riding around in a more darkly shadowed corner of the Stoltzfus psyche. Which, in concert with his unstinting pop instincts, makes for an album of often trembling beauty.

Following quickly on the heels of “Dancing To The Common Light” (the song as a whole is a storming triumph that you’ll long remember but that damned bassline hook is going to stay with you for life and may well ruin you), “Brain To Recorder” rolls in as a sort of bouncy country rocker, buoyant and sunny except for Quentin singing out the life of the musician-as-slave/serf/pauper entertainer (“my songs are happy suffering like me”), un-sugarcoated but tasty regardless, the bittersweet joy of the la-la-la‘s that come late in the song frosting the thing into an easy-to-swallow indie-chime confection.

Naturally this is by design, it’s one of those “made you look” kinds of devices. Your attention swings toward the attractive, exceedingly well-crafted bauble just to have it explode in front of you, spilling out its less-than-bauble-like contents. It is, in fact, all dark jewels around here. The straightforward skipping pop joy of “Elevator” comes tempered with the hard melancholia you’d expect when the song’s first line is “You can lay flowers on a grave to mark a lifetime.” That the song’s endowed with as pretty a melody as anything the guy’s ever created is both beside the point and the point. “And The Bird…” borrows something very close to Al Kooper’s “(Sooner Or Later)” piano riff to equally damning/lilting effect, “Are We Ever Satisfied?” invites you in with another bit of snaky bass tomfoolery – this one not a little post-punkish in nature – layering on some Low Bowie-esque electronic effects before becoming submerged beneath a tumult of unsettling, psych-tinged disturbo-pop worthy of the song’s title, a synth tone buzzing like a monotone mosquito over the rolling drum outro until it all feels like the work of some bored Oz back there rearranging bits of that strange dream you had last night. Wonderful, in a word. Transfixing, in another.

Never a belter, Stoltzfus’s vocals here are sometimes slightly sublimated, which, as irony would have it, just works to accentuate the emotional undertow. “LIES” will especially pull you under, eerie going sideways, the glow of some lost Frippery haunting throughout, the vocal just muddied enough to give you some very intriguing creeps. On the tunefully scathing, anti-narcissist title track, tribal-like drums, a confounding swirl of sonics and the odd squishy guitar effect somewhat overshadow the vocal but as they so accurately, ahem, mirror the gist of what’s being sung anyway, nothing’s lost.

That The Mirror benefits rather gloriously from the embroidery work of Stoltzfus’s backing band is apparent all over this album but never so much as on “A Loyal Subject Of The Status,” wherein a stand-in J.Mascis brings his mauling guitar to the service of a runaway Feelies-go-Krautrock track that’s an extravaganza of the explosive/concise conundrum those three qualifiers present. An unabashedly transcendent 3:14 bliss-out with Paul Maroon bringing as major a lead guitar mojo as he’s ever been allowed to unleash in his home band, this is pure euphoria wrapped in full-speed-ahead wrapped in timeless Hooklandia. Put another way, it is, oh my, one fine track.

We go out on a note of closure called “Dark Light,” one from the acoustic chapter of the noise pop hymnal, rather soothing in its own distorted way, and then we sit for a second, basking in that moment of satisfied contentment that comes from having just heard an assured, fully realized bloom of an album that wasn’t even on the radar a month ago. ‘Ahh,’ we say, ‘that’s nice,’ then we reach over and hit ‘play’ again.

– Dave Cantrell