It happens in a split second, though real time has frozen over: Milo, the adolescent protagonist of Norton Juster's 1961 classic, The Phantom Tollbooth, looks on as a black and white world he believes to be as drab and dull as grandma's stockings suddenly gives way to a landscape that's awash in a symphony of color. Flutes and strings summon a Pantone phantasmagoria that can be reached through an opening in a cardboard box in Milo's bedroom. And we're taught that, with just a little imagination, boredom can be completely eradicated. It's an allegory that can only truly be believed in children's books. And pop records.
Discovering a gem like Vells, the self-titled debut EP from the Seattle quartet, is a bit like wandering through a secret door to Dictionopolis, the magical land of Juster's tome. Signs there dictate, This is an irony-free zone! To hear something so pure, unobtrusive, and sweet as the opening bars of Vells' "Light on the Right" is to believe that, in a sense, time can stop. Guitars jangle and bells jingle, gliding like they're on roller skates. Tristan Marcum's muffled vox beckons, "Give me your hand." And just like on the Beatles' Revolver, the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, or the Shins' Oh, Inverted World, the listener is uprooted into a new world, one that could not exist without Technicolor.
Vells should be received with don't make 'em like they used to-type aphorisms. You get the feeling that the sun really does shine just a little brighter where the band lives. Even if it is in Seattle. The keyboards chirp through "Blue Blue Bones," adding a little finesse to the military-style drums, while Marcum invites, "Come to paradise." "Starlights Our Way" cops a T. Rex tambourine-and-handclap along the way. The plunging percussion on "In Sunless Seas" might be the album's only brief hint of morbidity, but the leverage settles before the closer, "The Very Scary Trees," as synthetic samba beats woo you and verses nearly snap like twigs. "Gun for Gun" carries a child's wisdom: "Live a life before the middle line/Never stepping in a double time/When they swing down, it will be my ride back home." Clocking in at around 20 minutes, that ride is over far too quickly. The cardboard box topples and reality sets in again. Like the afterglow of the best dreams.
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