In Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania, the noted music critic discusses the dictates of tradition of truly mastering a form before being able to elaborate on it and therefore building one’s distinctive creative voice. It’s difficult to say if Craft Spells, essentially the solo vehicle of Californian Justin Vallesteros adopted this approach to music-making, but the kid is certainly able to nail the winsome nature of eternal 80s touchstones. The heartbeat of his 2011 debut LP, Idle Labor, fluttered along with the melancholy pop elements of The Smiths, New Order, and The Cure. But with its title intimating chillwave sensibilities and the strong balearic touches of singles “Party Talk” and “After the Moment,” it managed to be a sleek synthesis of the ever-present past (the eternal influence of Morrissey) and the (extremely) immediate past (two years after Life of Leisure, one year after Subiza). In today’s micro time increments, Craft Spell’s debut just managed to miss the breezy heydays of chill, and while it bears an influence from Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, and Delorean, it shouldn’t be considered a contemporary of those artists.
The latest Craft Spells EP is a continuation of Vallesteros’ exploration of yearning cloaked in familiar signifiers of urgency and heartache. Lead single “Still Left With Me” is a breathless love letter, both danceable and full of resigned self-disparagement. “Warmth” is another upbeat number, begging for a dance floor remix on the surface but lyrically pulling in the other direction, a scene set in a partner’s bedroom, with conflicting emotions of escape and contentment within an emotionally and physically exposed moment.
“Burst” and “Leave My Shadow” are also thoroughly geared toward bumping up against that girl you’ve had your eye on all semester, and — not to knock Vallesteros’ aims — I’ve been there; these songs work perfectly for sparking young romance with the right person. But while the songs on Gallery are certainly functional, they fail to really distinguish themselves from one another, all stealing the same kind of misty-eyed march. It’s a decidedly spring affair with titles like “Warmth,” “Burst,” and “Leave My Shadow” (not to mention the timing); altogether, the songs here bleed into a sustained 24-minute march that eschews any of the balearic of Idle Labor for a drum-machine-fueled, new wave dance party feel.
Perfect music for the moment, then? Well, definitely, in the sense of marketability coinciding with the prevailing feelings of spring and the release of the latest Urban Outfitters catalog. It all fits together a little too seamlessly for this reviewer’s liking, well-made but lacking any truly distinctive highs and lows. Gallery is an effort by a young artist who stylistically manages to be consistent yet not sophisticated, involving yet not affecting. Vallesteros seemingly has a voice that belies his youthfulness (Just how much heartbreak has he already suffered? No matter, there is undoubtedly more to come!), but the overall tenor and expressed concerns here are more wedded to a “See you next semester?” combination of melancholy and hopefulness. The universal nature of these sorts of emotions, this sort of mood, are what make a song like “Temptation” so enduring and timelessly affecting. However, in the songwriting of Vallesteros, the affectation is spot-on but the requisite weightiness is somewhat lacking, youth music that captures emotions that seem all so real at the time but are ultimately over-written by life’s inevitable march toward the ever more weighty and unforgettable.