Issue #66: Brittle Stars by Brittle Stars

May 22, 2017

Facebook | Twitter | Spotify

Brittle Stars by Brittle Stars
Released In January, 2000
Released By Shelflife Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Carly Green

In 2013, the artist Rutherford Chang created a solo work and exhibition of a store buying and displaying The Beatles’ White Album called “We Buy White Albums.” Chang started out with around 600 copies (first-editions) and now owns a total of 1,729 copies of The White Album (according to his own web site). The exhibition work is formatted as a store that only sells White Albums because each first-edition album owned is unique in some way — either in the way that the cover looks (serial number, owner’s names, title defects) or even down to the way that wear and tear make the songs sound. I certainly may not be the Rutherford Chang of the indie-pop world, but I am working on becoming a collector of a very specific Shelflife Records (early catalogue entry) indie-pop release. As one of my ‘desert island’ picks, the 2000 self-titled album, by Gainesville, FL’s Brittle Stars (who also run Florida’s Clairecords label and Tonevendor distribution) reigns supreme.

I currently own multiple copies of this album on CD (I pick them up used whenever I find them). In my mind, I’m picking this album up as a gift for music loving friends or friends who I think could be converted to music that I love — a turning point in tonal emotionality for all who listen. The musical universe becomes one when I give the album to friends who deserve this album because it is just so good. I never give it to friends, though. I hold onto it, because of what it continues to mean and what it meant to me when I first heard it on college radio. I’m filing these duplicate albums by memory, because as an album it’s comforting to hear like a memory — and I guess I’m like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity in that way, and my list of memories in 2000 is long and… Hell, I have a soft-spot for The Brittle Stars.

Laid out like clever vignettes with quick fade outs, these songs are an album of cut scenes — old Kodak Polaroids or prints in a box of memories with stories behind each one leading back to timing: and how it was set to fail or recover a crushed heart. The whispered vocals and bittersweet pop lyrics of lead singer Estelle Baruch (Elephant Parade, Human Television) hang half-frozen in the air before a storm, her quiet and breathy vocals trying helplessly not to break your heart into tiny pieces, one song at a time.

Tripping Me Up” is cleverly both impatient in pace and wordplay. When Estelle sings, ‘I’m waiting to take this trip / but all his waiting is tripping me up / I’m trying to fix this clock / but all that’s ticking is ticking me off…,” you want to tap your feet in impatience with her. “Four Words” languishes about the aftermath of the waiting, being scared to take the next step, and later — finding that the timing is just off. “No Longer Waiting” and “You Went In Phases” are sad end-relationship, break-up drama, bitter.

Although vocally the songs here sound charming and sweet, the underlying content is lost hope and regret. It’s about trying and falling flat on your face when you really love someone (“So Unfair” and “This Trip“) and it’s the sadness that is the appeal. “I know that hope doesn’t change things / I thought that you wouldn’t give up / I tried to wait and see what you’d bring / but nothing’s there so I’ll just have to give up…” (“May“). It is like a brutal love-letter, commemorated and committed to a cassette tape in the middle of the night, and then sent off without warning to its intended recipient, “But I’m the one / who comes out a fool / ‘Cause I’m the one / that’s been lied to” (“Circus“).

Brittle Stars’ original lineup included bassist Dan Sobus, drummer Josh Ney, and guitarist Steve Clay in 1997. Ney brought in lead vocalist Estelle Baruch from Crush 22 (a band that he too was playing in). Even though Brittle Stars were only together for four short years before disbanding (in 2001), I feel like their music has left an indelible imprint on me. It’s been twenty years now, and this album still sits memorably at the top of my list. Like The Sundays, The Softies, early Eric’s Trip, New Order, and The Magnetic Fields who came before them: there is a warmth, a deep melancholy, and a haunting quality to Brittle Stars’ music that remains with you long after listening.

Carly Green (@gostsgnl)
Steadfast DIY Champion & Musician

One of few photos that exists of this short-lived band, a fact that fuels the canon of their fleeting charm and brilliance.

There’s something poetic about the fact that this band is called Brittle Stars and the short story of its existence comes across as rather fragile and brittle — at least if one is to go by the small paragraph provided at “Gainesville, FL indie-pop combo the Brittle Stars was formed in the summer of 1997 by guitarist Steve, bassist Dan and drummer Josh; after a handful of practices the trio disbanded, with Josh joining Crush 22. By early 1998, that band had dissolved as well, leaving Josh to reform the Brittle Stars; fellow Crush 22 alum Estelle signed on to sing and play keyboards in the reunited lineup, which after a handful of compilation appearances issued its self-titled debut LP on Shelflife in 1999.” The thought that this band initially broke up after only a few rehearsals has to be some kind of unfortunate record. If nothing else, it was at least enough to confuse me a little over this being an OYR pick when the mention of disbanding came up so quickly. However, it seems that series of events was for the best because, Brittle Stars’ eventual re-grouping and addition of vocalist, Estelle, heavily defines the Brittle Stars’ sound. Estelle’s delicate and gossamer voice, combined with the brighter and mildly tinnier guitar tones heard throughout this eponymous release, push Brittle Stars right into that light, indie pop bracket (side note: it’s too bad this band and the small but packed “NYC Pop Festival” didn’t cross paths. Especially considering that Brittle Stars lists festival alums, the Trash Can Sinatras, as an influence) that melodically evokes the sonic character of similar contemporary bands like Alvvays. At the same time, the band also clearly carries a stripe of two of indie quality (indie as in independent, not the eventual style), given the obvious and frequent use of digital strings (“This Trip,” “You Went In Phases“) and drums that sound like they were closely mic’ed when recorded; most likely in someone’s DIY space. When taken in all together, the album presents perfectly as the late ’90s throwback that it is. Tracks like “May” have an instrumental arrangement and melodic flow that remind me of mid-tempo Third Eye Blind-esque tracks, which were always a summer time staple and given how brightly the collective quality of Brittle Stars unfolds, I would imagine this record being most enjoyed during hot and-or lazy summer afternoons, giving any place its played, an instantly casual and approachable atmosphere. Seeing as we’re on the cusp of summer and much more outdoor time, perhaps this will fill in the silence of the approaching months.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

My first thought upon hearing Brittle Stars fantastic self-titled debut: “This does not sound like Harry Styles. I do not want to listen to anything except Harry Styles.” My second thought: “This band is definitely British… No, they’re not. Maybe they’re Swedish… Yes, they are British — she totally has kind of an affectation when she sings…” After researching, singer Estelle Baruch and the rest of Brittle Stars are actually from Gainesville, Florida, a town I generally associate with emo and punk, not the pop sounds of Brittle Stars. Listening carefully, there are a few things that make this band very special, with one foot in the pop sphere and one in the emo scene. There’s a great big heavy guitar riff in final track “Occasional Appearance” right before it ends that strictly pop bands like Cat’s Miaow would not have attempted. The keyboards on “So Unfair” bring so much buoyancy to lyrics like, “What you said to me / Left my lungs with nothing else to breathe.” Lest you think this band is all moody Morrissey-eque laments, Baruch sings, “Such a loud crash / I think you scared my cat” in “Four Words.” It still makes me giggle. The band also knows exactly how long their songs should be (2 to 3 minutes), a skill many have yet to perfect. I’ve probably spent as much time listening to Brittle Stars this week as I have Baruch’s more recent (gentler) project, Elephant Parade, which means I need to thank Carly for getting me out of my Harry Styles slump. For now.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Every now and then, I’ll go through phases where I listen to almost nothing but ’90s indie / Midwestern emo. Something about the loud/soft vocal dynamics and the whimsical yet technical guitar melodies soothe me in a way that other genres just can’t. Mineral, Hey Mercedes, and Sunny Day Real Estate are my primary go-to bands, but now I’ve got a new one to add: Brittle Stars. Despite coming out at the tailend of emo’s heyday and closer to when The Get Up Kids and Jimmy Eat World started veering the genre more toward a straight pop/rock direction, Brittle Stars’ self-titled debut has a lot in common with those emo classics: the softly delivered vocals crooning gentle melodies (the chorus of “May” is incredibly sweet, but not in an overly-saccharine way), intricate guitar work, oftentimes with little-to-no distortion, (although “Occasional Appearance” ends on an explosive, and abrupt, note), and minimal lyrics that cut deep (“like the moon you went in phases, and grew full before I blinked” from “You Went In Phases“). The band even broke up not too long after the album was released — a classic ’90s emo band move. However, what I appreciate the most about Brittle Stars is that the songs are brief, and never overstay their welcome. The one thing that always kicks me out of my Midwestern emo phase is that sometimes the songs are just too damn long. In the time it would take to listen to Diary and The Power Of Failing once each, I could spin Brittle Stars a total of four times. Thanks to listening to an unhealthy amount of Ramones and Circle Jerks at a young age, I often want to hear as many songs as possible in the shortest amount of time possible and even though I’ve learned to admire other styles of music, when I hear something that branched out from the punk scene, even if it is slightly removed, I can’t help but hope it emulates those punk vibes as much as it can. Blending the atmospheric style of ’90s emo, pop punk hooks, and the brevity of early punk rock might only appeal to a niche crowd, but Brittle Stars hits all the right spots as far as I’m concerned.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

Photo from Brittle Stars’ first ever show on March 20, 1998.

The best way I can describe Brittle Stars’ self-titled record would be summed up in the word sublime. Its sound derives from the feeling one gets when on an airplane high above the clouds and all is calm and exquisite. I’ve been waiting to take a trip like this for a long time. The combination of divine and entrancing feminine vocals with the simplistic and refined instrumentals make for a release that grabs a hold of you in a tight and warm embrace. “This Trip” is dainty, radiant, and graceful in its composition. “You Went In Phases” is another standout track, complete with a lovely gentleness that can be found in the chorus. “May” has a wonderfully subtle guitar that can be addictive to hear. Much of this release reminded me of Gregory And The Hawk, with its fluid elegance and charming softness. As someone who has entrenched themselves in the world of loud and fast punk rock, Brittle Stars was a breath of much wanted fresh air. If this record is anything to go by, I can’t wait to hear the remainder of the band’s discography and I hope that their second record holds the same cozy and toned down harmony that I found so appealing on this release. Without getting too sappy, I would even argue that this is the kind of album that should be listened to right before bed. It will easily get you into the soft dream space needed to peacefully fall asleep. Ethereal? Yes. Boring? No way.

Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band

When I met Amos he was already 26 years old. Oh, I didn’t know anything really then; at 19, a baby barely removed from the fucked up childhood life I had, I felt like a foreigner in a different land, marveling over people’s strange customs like holding the door for you and not calling you a bitch. I thought I knew, though, and like so many people that age I swaggered around doing dumb shit like finishing a bottle of Wild Turkey he bought for my 20th birthday before he realized how old I was, then later glorifying the story of how he helped me get undressed in the dark and held my hair back while I threw up at 4 AM in his bathroom. I didn’t know yet how to drink, didn’t know how to love someone who could see me stumbling around, tears in my eyes, and still manage to fall in love with me that night. How do you love someone who’s lived a life before he even knew you were a person? In the honeyed sunrise of our beginning, this man I would marry five years later, I rode a ridge of serrated jealousy, not about a particular woman or love, but at the life he had before me. He knew all these bands, had seen all these movies — hell, he wasn’t even from Alabama, having come states away to get his doctorate while I fumbled through a bachelor’s. That recognition of a life lived, the pining to know what it was like because I loved him and I wanted to see the movie of his life firsthand, came crashing back through me when I turned on Brittle Stars, unexpectedly kicking my feet out from under me. Never have I so loved an OYR album from the first listen. Never have I felt like a friend came to me from the shadows, just appearing in my life and almost making me believe in a higher power, so kismet the connection. Read that last sentence, maybe think I am in a Prozac-induced high, fueled by the knowledge I’m marrying my best friend soon, that I have lovely friends, that this pink wine feels less girly than it does perfect for a cooler May evening, but isn’t that what music is supposed to do? The washy underwater tones of Brittle Stars punctuate my apartment, filter through the rooms. A voice like Rose and Jen from The Softies, unobtrusive in the miasma of chimey guitar, supportive bass, just floating through the album no less interesting despite the lack of real highs and lows. The sound is very early 2000s, but something about the combination of voice, pitch, and rhythm feels like home to me, hits all my musical longings, and pulls me back into the wishing I’d had this album for the past 17 years, regretting time we never spend together and memories we could’ve made.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Wow. I really enjoyed this one. It goes firmly in the category of “Albums I Wish I Could Have Listened To In My Car In High School” (which actually would have been possible in this case) although now that I think of it, I wonder if I would have been sophisticated enough for this lovely music back then. I think one of the strongest qualities of the album is the vocals. They’re so beautiful but are never drowned out by the awesomely powerful instrumentations. If I have a complaint about this album, it’s that it is just too short. I have to have more of this amazing sound and excellent pick!

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

In a few weeks, it’s going to be scorching hot, humid and miserable in Virginia for a few months straight. It’s the kind of heat where you don’t even want to breathe too hard because it could cause a full-on flop sweat. It’s the kind of heat that turns an ice cold glass of sweet tea into the Holy Grail. That’s what Brittle Stars reminds me of — that ice cold, tingly sensation of syrupy goodness trickling down your inner chest on an oppressively steamy summer’s day. The airy synth chords of “This Trip” and “You Went In Phases” make you say “aaaahhhhh” after a nice long sip. “Afloat” is just the right amount of sugar. And when I say “right amount,” I mean way too much sugar; not the requisite amount of sugar that makes you still kind of question if it’s unsweetened. After you’ve gulped it all down in record time, “Circus” is the impending sugar rush that not only signals a primal satisfaction, but also an immediate desire to go back for more. If Brittle Stars could bottle this album, they’d be the saviors of the summer.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Lead singer Estelle Baruch, whose astral vocals give direction to the music’s empyreal wandering

I don’t play or watch golf often, but there’s an expression from the sport that’s stuck with me: “moving day.” That’s what they call the third day of a four-day tournament, because it’s the round in which competitors move to the general neighborhood of the leaderboard in which they’re likely to end up. Other days are about getting to know the course and executing under pressure; moving day is about becoming. Forgive the sports metaphor, but that’s what Brittle Stars sounds like to me — a moment of becoming. Their arrangements are sturdy, bolstered by thick layers of synth, but the short track times and quick endings make it feel like they’re eager to move on. (Appropriately, one of the two songs that pass the three-minute mark is called “No Longer Waiting.”) The lyrics in opening track “Tripping Me Up” clearly communicate restlessness: “Waiting to take this trip, but all this waiting is tripping me up / Trying to fix this clock, but all that’s (this?) ticking is ticking me off.” It strikes me as fitting that these are the song’s only lyrics; they repeat once, but that’s it. One type of wordplay applied to two situations rich in symbolism — one relating to travel and both relating to time — and, just like that, the song is over. How perfectly does that sum up the flash in time when you’re just north of twenty and actively trying to figure out what kind of person you’re going to end up being? You know yourself pretty well, but you don’t know who you’ll become, and then just like that [pretend you just heard someone snap], you’re you. Side note: Talking about this makes me feel old. That’s what I get for using a golf metaphor.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

This Brittle Stars record gives me the warm fuzzies, like a slightly ragged but warm blanket of sound I can wrap around me for 24 minutes. Or 48 minutes, if I play it twice in a row, as I did on more than one occasion. There’s lo-fi synth and distorted guitar accompanying vocals that are just this side of cute, all in service of tunes that are pure charm. While I can’t find specific antecedents, I was immediately cast back to thinking about Orange Juice, Swell Maps, The Raincoats, Postcard Records, Rough Trade… but I’m not going to think too hard about the context of such a record coming out in 2000, instead of 1982, and from Gainesville, Florida, instead of Glasgow. It seems to exist out of time and space, a perfect exemplar of indie-dream-pop. I was not surprised to be disappointed by the other, later music I heard from Brittle Stars. Their debut album was lightning in a bottle and you don’t capture that twice — but they captured my heart, and I think yours might be next.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

I really hate Spotify. It’s intrusive, musicians are way too dependent on it, it sets dangerous precedents, and, perhaps most important to my spoiled self, it brings each computer I use to a grinding halt when opened. Seriously, I hate it. Whenever people tell me they just re-upped or bought a membership, it just sends shivers down my spine. Worst of all though is the feeling that I owe much of my musical discovery of the past several years to the program. This stupid, bloated program. I’ve spent hours in front of monitors combing through other people’s playlists after simply searching “1970s punk” or “electronic folk,” fist-pumping when I find a playlist comprised primarily of songs or bands I’ve never heard. I’ve spent days climbing down the Related Artist rabbit hole, starting on bands like alternative pioneers Pixies before inexplicably landing on forgotten power pop band 20/20. It’s an arduous process to go through — you end up listening to a lot of music you hope doesn’t show up in the “Friend Activity” column, but it’s still incredibly rewarding. Listening through Brittle Stars’ self-titled record at first reminded me of this experience. The record, firmly rooted in indie pop, played out in my head like a sturdy bridge in the middle of indie pop history, connecting the more twee and organic sounds of the early ’90s with the more electronica influenced approach that would be coming in the years that followed. After “Occasional Appearance” floored me with that jarring, yet melodic ending, I had to know more, I had to understand the context of this band. But I came up empty. Sadly, there isn’t much out there for new fans to learn about the band, save for some archived pages and random blog posts all using the same images. It was a dead-end I had encountered countless times in my Spotify journeys, something that actually enhanced the listening experience at times. With no information to find, you double down on what you have and graciously take in anything and everything you can from the artist. We’ve covered a few artists like this at Off Your Radar before, but none that parallel those late-night sessions with Spotify as perfectly as this. What makes this experience even grander is I don’t even think you can stumble on to this band with my process. Throughout the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of indie pop playlists I’ve looked at, Brittle Stars has never made an appearance. You can’t use the Related Artists feature here either — the only artist that links to Brittle Stars is Shoestrings, a band only linked to from Brideshead, a band only linked to by Red Sleeping Beauty who’s linked by multiple bands, but it all circles back to one another giving you your own dead-end in Spotify’s world. It seems only Carly’s recommendation here gave me an opportunity into Brittle Stars’ gossamer world of amorphous melodies and tranquil vocals, and with that, it gives me reassurance. Reassurance that I’ll never be fully dependent on Spotify’s algorithms and catalogues. Reassurance that one day I’ll be able to say I hate the program and also don’t use it. But who am I kidding — knowing bands like Brittle Stars are out there on Spotify, only available using unchartered routes in its backlog, only fuels my curiosity. Now I want to be able to organically find them through searches… and then use the same process to find hundreds more with music just as dazzling as Brittle Stars.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Stateless by Lene Lovich
Chosen By Doug Nunnally

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Carly Green, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

Logo By Matt Klimas


In Case You Missed It