By Eleni P. Austin
If you came of age in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, chances are, you discovered new music almost exclusively through MTV (back when the “M” stood for Music). In the early days, the channel played whatever was available, but by the end of the first decade, they created programs dedicated to specific genres of music. Headbanger’s Ball for the Metalheads, Yo! MTV Raps for Hip-Hop fans, and 120 Minutes, a weekly two-hour show dedicated to Alternative music (which basically meant Punk, Post-Punk and New Wave). The show included everyone from Kate Bush, The Cure R.E.M. and The Replacements, to Robyn Hitchcock, The Blake Babies, Bob Mould, Lemonheads, They Might Be Giants, Sinead O’Connor, XTC and Nirvana, who premiered their “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video on the show. When I listen to Eyelids, it reminds of those halcyon days.
Portland Oregon’s Eyelids have been making music together for about ten years, give or take. In that decade they have released eight 7” singles, three EPs, three long-players and a live collection.
An indie super group of sorts, the five-piece includes guitarist/vocalists Jonathan Drews, John Moen and Christopher Slussarenko (who also plays keys), bassist Jim Talstra and drummer Paulie Pulvirenti. Individually, these guys have been in bands like Dharma Bums, Guided By Voices, Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, The Minus 5, Decemberists and Boston Spaceships, as well as Elliott Smith.
John and Chris first crossed paths in the mid ‘80s, when John was part of Dharma Bums and Chris played in Death Midget. A few years later, they cemented their friendship when Guided By Voices visionary Robert Pollard recruited them for his Boston Spaceships project. It was then that their musical partnership took flight, as they began writing together.
Fast-forward a few years later and the duo expanded their original demos into full-fledged songs. Enlisting Jon, Jim and Paulie to flesh out their sound, they hunkered down in the studio, recording 13 songs on the spot.
The result was their 2015 debut, 854. Their sound effortlessly distilled their ‘80s roots and surreptitiously paid homage to musical touchstones like R.E.M., L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene like The Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, as well as New Zealand legends like Straitjacket Fits and The Clean. Hot on the heels of 854, they released a self-titled EP.
The band hit the road, initially opening for like-minded artists like the late, great Tommy Keene, Charlatans U.K. Fruit Bats and Drive-By Truckers. Later on they toured with icons The Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade. Their sophomore effort, or, arrived in 2017. It was first album produced by Post-Punk pioneer and longtime hero, R.E.M. guitarist, Peter Buck.
In the years since, Eyelids has continued to write, record and tour, releasing 7” singles and EPs at a furious clip. In 2019 the band got together with poet/songwriter (and former Tim Buckley collaborator), Larry Beckett. Taking inspiration from Larry’s stream-of-conscious lyrics, the band matched his words to their sweet and sometimes skronky melodies with sublime results. Accidental Falls arrived in early 2020, receiving rave reviews from tastemaker publications like Pitchfork, Glide and Mojo. Of course, 10 minutes later the world shuddered to a stop
Even during lockdown, Eyelids managed to create new music, albeit remotely. It was around this time that Jim Talstra amicably parted ways with the band. Luckily, their old pal, Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker, The Third Mind) stepped in and now permanently anchors the low-end. With the new line-up complete, they headed into the studio. Once again, Peter Buck handled production chores. They recently emerged from the studio with their fourth long-player, A Colossal Waste Of Light.
The record opens with the one-two punch of “Crawling Off Your Pages and Swinging In The Circus. The former sounds like the best Big Star song you’ve never heard. Cascading, swirly guitars and leap-frogging bass lines collide with a punishing backbeat. Boyish harmonies wrap around minimalist lyrics that speak to an emotional disconnect; “We tried everything, there was no trust, but I can’t reach you, and that’s too much, we’re crossing paths in space, two lines that barely touch.” On the break, the strummy jingle-jangle crunch is augmented by swoony strings. Even as this relationship is goes down flames, it’s a compelling conflagration.
While the former was lush to the point of fecundity, the latter is stripped-down and muscular. Flickering, tensile guitars partner with ominous bass lines and a walloping beat. The arrangement and vocals are equal parts driving and dreamy. Meanwhile, nuanced lyrics paint a vivid portrait of frustration and ennui; “Smoking around with a council of clowns, I’ve got a lot of decisions to make, their advice is to turn my frown upside down, I said give me a break, I should be flying, but I haven’t found my confidence yet, truth be told, I’ve seen a lot of the net/Cannibal Corpse strange lullabies in my headphones of death, sleeping in a trailer that smells of sour milk, a tattoo on my neck that says ‘blessed’ all I wanted was to soar above this mess.” The tempo accelerates on the break, kicking the song into interstellar overdrive as spiky guitars dart through mix and Paulie unleashes a Keith Moon-inspired percussive attack.
The coolest thing about Eyelids is that their decades of experience allow them to deftly hopscotch through a plethora of musical styles without breaking a sweat. Take the autumnal grace of “Everything That I See, You See Better.” Honeyed harmonies lattice chiming guitars, angular bass, incandescent keys and a heartbreak beat. Labyrinthine lyrics twist and turn, offering a gimlet-eyed encomium; “Join me in the accident that will be today, cause everything I see, you see better. A flash of guitar pyrotechnics spark on the break, as fuzz-crusted rhythm guitar sidles up to willowy lead guitar.
“The Snowfire Band” is a Psych/Country shapeshifter that opens with wily guitar riffs and springy bass lines wed to a hicuppy beat. Whimsical lyrics conjure a fanciful band line-up that includes lead singer Persephone “her song comes from deep in the mountain, the lyrics spring up in the mind’s eye,” drummer Ol’ Patience “he’s learning his rhythms from the river.” Then there’s The Enchanter “who plays the guitar-o, he’s never had lessons, his chords are like kite strings (like nettle stings and Dragonfly wings),” Unamable Raven on keys “will steal your heart for his collection,” plus Loyal, the bassist who “is true love and perpetual motion.” The buoyant and bucolic feel amps up on the break when guitars intertwine like, well, nettle stings and Dragonfly wings. On the song’s denouement, prickly guitars carom through the verses like an unspoken Greek chorus.
The bittersweet title track is powered by strummy acoustic guitars, shivery electric notes, thrumming bass and a rat-a-tat-tat beat. Enigmatic lyrics like “Dazzling eyes and jasmine smoke… while we sing of love’s decay a beauty in our lives, it was such a perfect time, a colossal waste of light” feel shot through with optimism even as the shit hits the fan. On the break, pinging sonar guitars ricochet through the ether, as drums offer a primordial kick.
Finally, “Pink Chair” Anchored by a hard-charging beat, rubbery electric guitars, ringing acoustic arpeggios and nimble bass lines the melody and arrangement toggle between frothy New Wave and rootsy Folk Rock. Blurry lyrics feint and dissemble, imbuing the Pink Chair with human qualities; “Pink chair will survive, how it tries, and I…the Pink Chair slowly sighs, right on time, and I don’t mind, I don’t mind.”
The album’s best tracks, arrive back-to-back. On “They Say So,” sugar-rush acoustic licks, stinging electric riffs, flinty bass lines and rippling castanets are tethered to galloping gait. Jaunty vocals belie lyrics that murkily hint at a mental health break; “Blinking lights with no decay, an on/off switch of delayed pain.” The irresistible melody coupled with the propulsive arrangement, spiraling guitars and exuberant “bah-bah-bahs” almost extinguishes the angst. These boys know to bait a musical hook.
There’s no daylight between “They Say So” and the squally chords that open “Runaway, Yeah.” Pensive rhythm notes are juxtaposed by squiggly electric riffs, prowling bass and a click-clack beat. The lean and unfussy arrangement is matched by lyrics that leave no room for equivocation; “We can’t pretend that nothing’s wrong, but nothing’s left…and when the trap-door fails and your last ship sails, chasing soft contrails, and then the anvil of truth will come for you and me, and you’ll want to runaway too.” Strafing guitars blaze through the break, bookended by a blitzkrieg drum salvo, before the song quietly powers down. The action slows for three tracks. First up is the delicate shimmer of “That’s Not Real At All (B. Midweek Pg. 207) followed by the modal ache of “Only So Much.” and sun-dappled Zombie pentimento, Miuse.” The record’s final two tracks, “Lyin’ In Your Tomb” and “I Can’t Be Told” offer a study in contrasts.
On the laid-back “Lyin’ ….” a chunky backbeat intersects with serpentine 12-string guitar, slithery rhythm licks, stealthy bass and muted keys. Spooky lyrics cast a hypnotic spell; “I may slightly awaken, when they’re shoving the stake in, I’m one of the flightless and the self-forsaken, you’re lyin’ in your tomb.”
Conversely, on “I Can’t…” a piledriving backbeat partners with rumbling bass lines, brawny rhythm notes, dulcet 12-string riff-age and oscillating lead guitar. The defiant lyrics are limited to the title. As the arrangement gathers speed, it locks into a cyclonic groove that builds to a stunning crescendo. All that’s missing is that postcoital cigarette. A herculean finish to another amazing record.
A decade in, Eyelids continue to surprise and delight, conquering fresh territory even as they remain true to their antecedents. A Colossal Waste Of Light is one of those magical records that reveal something new with each spin.