Stamen & Pistils is an expanding D.C.-based group that started as a duo, was a trio on this release, and is now a quartet, Towns being their second release; I never heard the first. In my own mind I hastily first compared the group to Hanalei; both are acoustic-based, with some electronics and drum machines. But Stamen is less reliant on the drum machine as the beats are typically minimal and sometimes completely absent, replaced by minimal real drums, while they use primarily acoustic instruments and don't rely on synth sounds. Further along I felt a Neutral Milk Hotel vibe with the vocal timbre and lo-fi aspect of it all.
However, something about Towns bugged me as I got further into it. Why isn't this clicking with me? I like all the musical elements -- it's a simple combination. Then I realized it was the vocals. Not so much the singing ability or tone (though that is a part of it), but the actual melodies and the flow of the lyrics. The melodies seem a bit random and almost improvised, like they were written without much thought as to the rise and fall of notes, just meandering about. "At Home Amongst Your Tangles" rollercoasters from froggy lows to unsure highs without any real 'hook' to speak of. In "Quiet Country," where a female harmony joins, it's hit-or-miss because you can't make a solid harmony over an uncertain melody. It's not all bad though on this track, as I like the groove and the arrangement, which has some nice accordion backing. The times when the melody is most solid is when it simply doubles an instrument line. In the solid opener "Second Hand Valise" the bridge vocals climb into falsetto range with the crutch of the piano part, and in a quiet verse of "Possessive Nouns" the vocals jump up and down with help from the acoustic guitar. In other parts of this song however, the melody veers all over creation in a very distracting way along with the rambling lyrics, leading me to my next point.
The lyrics seem to be assembled with little regard for the rhythms and phrases resulting from the number of syllables. They sound clumsy and not thought out. "An Elegy for Thee" gives a lot of examples, such as this bit in the second verse: "I'm the one who came to visit, I tried to show that I might be redeemed, at least that's how I wanted it to be seen." It's really something you have to hear to see how words spill over every natural ending or pausing point making it seem like some editing should have been in order. This song also has the seemingly random melodic moves that I was talking about in the paragraph previous. It's a mess.
Their press stuff pushes them as kin to Animal Collective, and while both are a bit strange and acoustic based (Sung Tongs Collective would be more accurate), Animal Collective has incredible pop sensibilities and melodies that stick whether you can understand the words or not. The words are not the focus. Stamen do the complete opposite, making the words too much of the focus, allowing them to trip up a possibly memorable melody.
I really dig the musical aspects of Stamen & Pistils. Their sparse instrumentation uses a lot of typically folk instruments without being contained in that genre, and their well-placed electronic elements give a cool ambience at times and a nice groove at other times. I came into this thinking I was going to like this record for all those reasons, but the vocals just wouldn't let me. This was a tough score to give as the music would probably be a 7/10, while the vocals are like a 2/10, giving me the score I settled on.