In a 2004 interview with Digitalis, Nick Castro used his interviewer's open-ended final question — one of those "any parting shots?" deals — to ask any readers who could help him obtain a gimbri, a type of stringed instrument indigenous to northern Africa, to email him. Two years later, Castro's contribution to Dusted's "Listed" column teems with records so obscure he doesn't know the full story behind them. Among a faction of the rock underground whose listening diet consists largely of limited run CD-Rs and newly recovered "lost legends" from the pre-punk era, Castro stands out as a man with a particular interest in music's fringes, capable of giving any snide record clerk or well-meaning ethnomusicologist a run for his money in terms of sheer useless knowledge.
That's why his previous album, 2005's Further From Grace, was an enigma and ultimately a letdown. Backed by The Poison Tree, a band featuring Josephine Foster and members of Espers, Castro used that record to channel the raw promise of his earliest material into competent but somewhat stifled folk-pop. Further From Grace failed to develop its avant-garde trappings beyond brief tokenistic displays, falling closer to Bryter Layter than Castro's more challenging influences, but then trying too hard to hide the fact that it was a pop album. Melodies weren't given room to shine or stick, and as a result the album found itself in an all-too-familiar indie rock no man's land between complete accessibility and pop-informed envelope pushing.
Come Into Our House, Castro's first recording with new group The Young Elders, doesn't allow its author to completely shake his sentimental pop tendencies, but it is the first release to find Castro assimilating his influences in a way that does them justice. Perhaps his cred-heavy backing band, which includes members of Current 93 and Cul de Sac, is responsible for the growth; indeed, the album's strongest moments are the group jams. "Sleeping in a Dream" begins as a decent enough lullaby, all acoustic lilt, dream babble, and forest talk, but its coda provides a substantial payoff, enacting the ethereal sleep state Castro mentions with droning harmonium, breathy gong, and layers of enveloping drums. These two minutes of water music are also spliced Ted Macero-style — another of Castro's new tricks — to create a flowing, richly atmospheric environ; the whole package reminds me of Bark Psychosis' "A Street Scene" or the Brightblack Morning Light live experience, only without the accompanying digital washes.
Other instrumental passages evoke Rain Tree Crow trying their hand at snaking blues licks ("Attar") and Six Organs of Admittance gone alternately hair rock and post-rock ("Lay Down Your Arms"). Not only do The Young Elders imbue these moments with the record geek weirdness lacking in past Castro albums, but they also push beyond psych-folk's boundaries and towards a Mark Hollis-inspired vision of dangerous home listening music, a sound comforting in its seamlessness and organic intonation but daring in its willingness to take chances and jar.
Castro also delivers one commanding pop song here. "Standing on the Standing Stone" loads on one soft rock cliché after another, vocal harmonies recalling James Taylor, lyrics rife with phrases long depreciated ("California's my home"; "Seasons pass our time has come and gone"). But the melody is so taut and sublime and the instrumentation so warm and vibrant (especially the humming organ) that the cheesier elements seem like baroque flourishes. I'm okay with trite phrases when music's willing to stick its neck out this far and accommodate such massive melodies; this is certainly ballsier than an indie pop tune whose singer sounds ashamed to even sing it.
Snoozer "One I Love" shows that Castro hasn't kicked entirely his Ren Faire leanings, and Come Into Our House is hardly original or groundbreaking — it's really just a highly thoughtful, creative reassembling of an incredibly broad range of influences. But it hints at possible future brilliance, and it makes for better listening than the greater number of rock albums you'll hear this summer.
1. Winding Tree
2. Sleeping in a Dream
4. One I Love
6. Voices from the Mountains
7. Standing on the Standing Stone
8. Lay Down Your Arms
9. Promises Unbroken