Not Enough Room In My Head

Sometimes it takes awhile for an album to find it’s rightful spot in my brain. It’s not necessarily a “grower” kind of album, as it may immediately be catchy and enjoyable, but sometimes there’s just not enough room in my head for those songs to live and breathe. Or maybe I may not be in the right emotional spot to really dig what’s coming at me at that moment. Or maybe five albums hit in one week and I didn’t really have enough table time with a record so it gets shelved prematurely. The latter is sadly usually the case. That’s the case for Craft Spells’ Nausea, anyways.

I first got into Craft Spells back in 2012 when I heard their Captured Tracks debut Idle Labor. That year I found myself in the throes of a pretty heavy shoegaze/dream pop/post-punk bender and Captured Tracks were putting out all the fixes I needed for that musical addiction. Idle Labor seemed to be this mix of early 80s sounds; stuff you would’ve heard on early Depeche Mode, New Order, IRS, and 4AD releases that your big brother tried hiding from you. Craft Spells, aka Justin Vallesteros, was mining some pretty heavy hitters in order to create his own version of those essential records that came out prior to Reagan’s second term. For me, there was this air of upbeatedness(I trademarked this word last week, btw) that I loved. Vallesteros played all the instruments and his voice was a smooth tenor that delivered these pop-centric tunes with an air of maturity. You felt like you had found some lost album from the neon era, as opposed to some young turk that rummaged through his parents old college records and made his own version.

Fast forward to 2014 and the release of Craft Spells Nausea. 2014 was a crazy year for me. Not like bad crazy or anything, but just crazy. The wife got a new job where she was traveling quite a bit, so I was home with the kids in the summer a lot while mom was down in North Carolina and Kentucky. I’d discovered Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, which took up many of my afternoons of working out and mowing the lawn, and it was generally a pretty great year for music in my world. The War On Drugs, Real Estate, The Night Terrors, Jakob Skott, Jonas Munk, and a bevy of other heavy hitters put out some of my favorite albums of that year. I preordered the Captured Tracks limited edition version of Nausea when I saw it come up for sale, since I’m weak-kneed when it comes to phrases like “limited edition”, “special edition”, “preorder”, and “limited quantities”. The album arrived and I listened to it a couple times, enjoying it, but then it just sort of got pushed to the side as more goodness showed up in the mail. It eventually made its way into the vault where it sat for nearly three years…until now.

At work on a whim I found Nausea on one of those streaming music sites the kids are always talking about and listened to it whilst doing work things. With the whole job situation getting increasingly stressful I needed something to pull me out of it all. Opening track “Nausea” is this easy, breezy, and calming track that feels like a cross between Alan Parsons Project and OMD on tranquilizers. It has a slow motion quality to it that pulls you into its world. Vallesteros’ voice is really quite perfect for this kind of musical trip. He has an Eric Woolfson thing going on, but without all the melancholy. This track never hit me quite like it has lately. “Komorebi” keeps that vibe going to stunning effect. One of the biggest changes from Idle Labor to Nausea is that Vallesteros has replaced his “guy recording by himself” M.O. with a full band scenario in the studio and it suits him perfectly. There’s a real 70s quality to this album. “Komorebi” is this lush, dreamy track that has the sonic heft of Steely Dan with the wistful vibes of something I can’t quite put my finger on. “Dwindle” sounds like The Smiths in their latter years, before it all came to an end. Vallesteros isn’t quite the drama queen that Morrissey is, but he creates plenty of mood to go on. “Twirl” is a fun little number that grooves and shakes like Tigermilk-era Belle and Sebasitian. It’s a perfect summer day kind of song. “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide” has a bit of that old, dream pop vibe that Craft Spells lived in on Idle Labor, but with a lusher, fuller sound. It’s a great mixture of the musical worlds Justin Vallesteros loves to create in. “Still Fields(October 10, 1987)” is the piano-driven closer. For me, this hints at what Vallesteros could do in the future, which would be film scoring. It has such a cinematic feel to it. It’s quiet, emotive, and full of feeling. I could see this playing over the beginning or ending of a film. Perfect outro music, really.

I’m glad music works on us the way it does. We can’t force it to fit our emotional needs when it’s convenient for us. Sometimes it takes awhile to sink in. Craft Spells’ Nausea wasn’t meant to move me back in 2014. It was meant to move me in 2017. It’s a lush and beautiful album that’s subtle in its impact. It’s my go-to record in the mornings at work now. It silences the noise of frustration and lets me get to it.

So let’s get to it, shall we?



Craft Spells :: Nausea

CT200 CraftSpells Type_ExperimentsJustin Vallesteros makes music that puts you in a particular place and time. He goes by the band name Craft Spells but like many younger, shy songwriters he’s really the only guy making all that magic and putting it to tape. Idle Labor was Craft Spells debut for the Brooklyn record label Captured Tracks and it showed Vallesteros was a songwriter pulling from the early 80s alternative scene that gave us bands like Depeche Mode, New Order, and a much leaner Cure. Though Craft Spells sounded like party music for a bunch of kids with eyeliner and teased hair there was still an element of loneliness. As upbeat as it sounded, it still had the feeling of a guy alone in his bedroom making soundtracks to non-existent teen films. Three years and one E.P. later Vallesteros returns with one of the most lush and detailed albums you’ll likely hear this year. Nausea is a darkly lit record with the ease of a summer drive and the weight of a painful breakup.

The album opens with the title track and the first thing you notice is the absence of electronic drums and tinkling synths. This is an album created with a band playing together. Justin Vallesteros has assembled musicians to make this album live and breathe. “Nausea” moves and grooves slowly through four and a half minutes as keys create a dizzying effect on the listener. Vallesteros even sings differently this time around. His voice sounding not as low, he gives the vocals a much more lovelorn feel. Then you’re treated to the absolute beauty of “Komorebi”, a melancholy song that is carried along by a string part(possibly keys, possibly the real thing) and piano. Vallesteros’ voice sounds as much an instrument as the piano does, delivering melody and sadness as the exquisite jazz-inflected drums carries the song along. It’s a beautiful song that deserves to be played through the summer and fall on repeat. “Changing Faces” keeps the dreamy vibe going. I have to admit that this song sounds like something Justin Vallesteros’ label mate Jack Tatum would’ve written. Tatum’s Wild Nothing has a similar career path, taking a drastic and wonderful turn on his sophomore album Nocturne. While in no way sounding like Wild Nothing, Vallesteros has gone from a smaller concentrated sound to something much more lush and detailed, like Tatum did. This is a sound that suits Craft Spells sensibility very well.

Nausea is filled with little moments of beauty and detail, melancholy and grief. The Smiths haunt the track “Dwindle” like an unfulfilled ghost. “Twirl” bounces and shakes like the Psychedelic Furs on a sugar rush, and “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide” brings back a little of that 4AD and early 80s Sire releases sound Vallesteros perfected on Idle Labor, with some help from some great-sounding strings. “Still Fields(October 10, 1987)” closes the album on a beautiful and lilting note. It puts you in mind of bands like Tangerine Dream and another Captured Tracks alumni Thieves Like Us; in particular their excellent instrumental album Berlin/Alex.

I can only hope that Justin Paul. Vallesteros reads this at some point so he knows how much this album means to me and others. It’s a beautiful record filled with detail, mood, emotion, and heartache. He’s made a wonderful musical statement. A statement heard loud and clear by these ears.

9.2 out of 10


Craft Spells-Idle Labor

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of early 80s new wave(wait, yes it is). Well I do. Love it. I love the analog synths. I love the electronic drums. Front and center bass and the lovelorn vocals. I think more than anything what I love about new wave is the nostalgia. It reminds me of being a kid. Hearing bands like Modern English, New Order, Soft Cell, Nena and A-ha on the radio. I eventually got to be a teen and began a musical phase filled with hair metal tomfoolery. This began some seriously crappy musical purchases until 1990, when I bought Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love. Some folks had their ‘summer of love’.  Well, 1990 began my ‘winter of grunge’. That winter lasted nearly 3 years. But we’re not talking about grunge.  We’re talking about new wave. And Craft Spells Idle Labor.

I don’t know how I came across Craft Spells to be honest. I believe it was the album cover that intrigued me more than anything. The album cover, sporting a bouquet a flowers displayed in a dream-like haze reminded me of New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies. So I thought I’d give it a shot. And I’m glad I did. Idle Labor is an album filled with unapologetic, irony-free new wave and 80s alternative music. From the first seconds of album opener ‘For The Ages’ you know this isn’t nostalgic for the sake of nostalgia. Somewhere between the Cure’s lighter moments on Three Imaginary Boys and New Order’s Brotherhood. Up next is ‘Scandinavian Crush’. It’s like a Pet Shop Boys b-side and they have the electronic drums to prove it. ‘Party Talk’ starts with a distant-sounding guitar, very Real Estate-like. Then the programmed drums come in and a very Ian Curtis-ish vocal steps out of the darkened, reverb-heavy darkness.

Craft Spells is the bedroom project of Justin Paul Vallesteros. He began writing songs in the winter of 2009 that would eventually become Craft Spells debut. Vallesteros looks like a 12 year old. Maybe he is. Or maybe he’s a man-child. Either way, this kid has got the new wave/120 Minutes thing down pat. Along with a few of his contemporaries, like Porcelain Raft, Beach House, Real Estate and Diiv, Vallesteros and Craft Spells create a dreamy, hazy kind of throwback music that when you’re listening to it doesn’t feel like a throwback at all. It feels like a lost classic found in the dusty bargain bin of a local record shop. Craft Spells sounds like that record you find in your older sister’s closet while searching for your copy of Men At Work’s Cargo that she borrowed.

With songs like ‘Scandinavian Crush’, ‘Party Talk’ and ‘After The Morning’, Craft Spells have put together an album of lovelorn new wave, sun-baked goth and synth-heavy dream pop that will find a permanent spot on my playlist. Idle Labor has also built a bridge back to my childhood and those summer days baking in the midwest sun, riding my Huffy dirt bike and ‘I Melt With You’ echoing in the distance on someone’s boom box.