Given that Craft Spells specialise in the same brand of dreamy, melodic guitar work that the likes of Real Estate and The War On Drugs have made their calling card, you could probably be forgiven for thinking that they missed some kind of memo earlier this year, when both of those bands dropped new full-lengths to rave reviews. In actual fact, though, such lateness to the proverbial party would be entirely in keeping with the lackadaisical nature of Justin Vallesteros’ outfit’s sound; they’ve never sounded as if they were in any kind of rush.
It’s a characteristic that’s stuck with them as far as this full-length follow-up to 2011 debut Idle Labor. That record strived to bring a touch of its native California sunshine to a sonic palette that was already being done to death elsewhere, not least on the band’s own record label, Captured Tracks. It was partially successful, with enough potential to ensure that I jumped at the opportunity to give Nausea a listen in advance of release.
The title track, in opening, adheres fairly strictly to the pre-established Craft Spells approach; woozy vocals, soft guitar lines and a cloud of mildly off-kilter synth providing the basic foundation. It’s an unremarkable note on which to begin proceedings, but “Komorebi” quickly strives to pit that right; the keyboard line carries more than a hint of oriental influence, and the drums seem to run slightly further ahead than everything else. It’s certainly mellow, to the degree that, when the vocals come in at the midpoint, you weren’t necessarily waiting for them - the soundscape alone was enough.
In fact, it’s Vallesteros’ lyrics and vocal melodies that, if anything, feel like a bit of a spare part on this record. His brief turn on “Komorebi” is forgettable, especially after a gorgeous late flurry of strings; on the minimal “First Snow”, meanwhile, the backing is sparse enough that there’s little to disguise the one-dimensional quality to his vocals. On the album’s jauntier cuts, he suits the environment better - lively turns on “Dwindle” and “Twirl” are cases in point - but a hushed performance on “If I Could”, which has him sounding like a dramatically-subdued Ian Brown, falls well wide of the mark.
Ultimately, though, you can’t help but feel that Vallesteros’ vocal shortcomings are of less importance on a record like this than they might be elsewhere; he gets pretty much everything else right. The fabulously hazy “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide” is brilliantly-pitched - flashes of a string section against the record’s sharpest guitar part - whilst “Changing Faces” is an exercise in intelligent, studied pop songwriting; there’s a smart blend of acoustic and electric guitars on there, culminating in a short-but-sweet solo late on, but it’s the track’s irresistible hook that elevates it to standout status.
It’s a shame that Craft Spells continue to struggle for the same kind of exposure as some of their contemporaries, because, in an overcrowded marketplace, Vallesteros continues to find ways to stand out from the crowd. This is another lo-fi gem, and most encouraging is the fact that there’s apparently plenty more he can wring out of this particular sonic platform; he might not need slick studio production to genuinely capitalise on his potential.