"The Stills" is a misnomer. Stagnation scares the pants off the Brooklyn-via-Montreal five-piece. For the follow-up to 2004's woozy, luscious, reverb-swaddled Logic Will Break Your Heart, they adamantly shift toward Wilco-branded Davy Crockett wilderness rock with piano bar moments. Further shaking up the sound is the exit of guitarist Greg Paquet and subsequent move of Dave Hamelin from drums to guitar. Hamelin also does most of the singing—a gig that used to belong to guitarist Tim Fletcher. As if their role as capricious headcases needed reinforcement, the Stills' new album shares its name with Woody Allen's book of prose (the band's second tip-of-the-hat to the neurotic icon, having called an earlier song "Love and Death"). But nothing will prevent a chorus of "What the hell?"s from invariably surfacing when anyone familiar with Logic hears the riff of Heart's "Barracuda" open Without Feathers.
The tense strumming heralds a new regime for the fellas who were baptized as part of the whole new-wave/post-punk/shoegaze thing that Interpol spearheaded. Bands are wont to reinvent themselves all the time, but it takes a deep understanding of the collective creative identity (Sleater-Kinney) to not come off sounding schizo (Metallica). In the Stills' case, someone prematurely turned on the bright lights and damn near lost their sight.
"It's nice to see you're moving on," sings Hamelin on "In the Beginning," "It's just never what it was." But it was more engrossing than this. "The Mountain" and "Helicopters" have a galloping momentum, a bucolic feeling of being released into the frontier: The instruments blaze forward in single file, then joyously stumble into each other mid-song. But on even the heavy-handed piano-driven dirges "In the End" and "She's Moving On," Logic's melancholy has been replaced by the determination to not be melancholy. The winsome "It Takes Time" goes one step further and brings horns into the fray, which isn't as curious as the handclaps and tom-toms of "Oh Shoplifter." But the musical deflections aren't nearly as irksome as the flat-footed vocals. Fletcher packed a cashmere tongue that delivered yearning and catharsis with gorgeous extravagance, but it's gone. If the Stills truly are Without Feathers, they at least need a greater wingspan.
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