During my time as a writer for horror movie magazines, and particularly over the grueling amount of time spent constructing a review compendium for my Master’s Thesis, there was one thing I learned that has absolutely stuck with me. Writing about a great work can be invigorating, writing about a terrible work can be a lot of fun, but it is writing about an average work that poses the greatest challenge. When reviewing horror films I would use a 4-star scale, and 2-star reviews proved by far the hardest to write. The all-important question is: how can you bring life to the middle of the road, and inspire the audience to read on?
Thus has been my reason for deliberating at such length about what to do with my review of Childspeak’s “Day Dream Sparkle Party” – a piece which, unlike the pages of my Thesis, I am not obliged to bring to fruition, but one which I feel consistently compelled to follow through with. There is a true potential in this band’s debut that has inspired me to continue onward. It is far from perfect, but to ignore it would be to perform a disservice – both to you, who I assume to be an avid listener of alternative music, and to the band, who perhaps needs only a nudge in this direction or that in order to fulfill the promise that is woven throughout the sometimes-ragged fabric of this album. What I know is this: I have been sitting for six weeks with this album, considering it from various angles, and in that time I have pumped out reviews of other albums in less than a day’s time. I could have written Childspeak off by this point, but the truth is that something keeps me coming back, and that ability certain music has to stick with you, for whatever reason, is really what we are all after, is it not?
I’ll begin with the positives. Working out of Portland, Oregon, Childspeak is a four-piece that is mostly instrumental, but not without some infusion of “vocals,” provided through clips of spoken word taken from political speeches, literary sources, and even infomercials. What strikes me about the band’s sound is their sheer willingness to traverse (sub)genres. Some songs, such as “Piratelike Reflexes,” have a late-90s indie-punk vibe, not unlike Braid or “Acrobatic Tenement”-era At the Drive In. Yet, two songs later, “Harlequin” takes you on a relaxing 11-minute journey that begins with a traditional post-rock structure, before morphing into an extended passage of experimental noise/ambient. Later on, you encounter “Q’s and A’s,” which is more free-wheeling up-tempo rock. It’s all over the map, and initially this is a very good thing, keeping the listener on their toes and never allowing one to settle into any concrete expectations for the songs to come.
Essentially, Childspeak strikes me as a band that is new enough (and obscure enough) to have the freedom to do whatever the hell they feel like, and while this leads them into a decided lack of focus on later tracks, it is not without a measure of real intrigue. This feels like an album I could have stumbled across in one of those hidden-gem record stores back in the late-90s/early-2000s – the kind of band that maybe wasn’t quite there yet, but showed delicious promise that landed them firmly on the radar (much the same as Cursive’s early work, before they found their voice on “Domestica”). The performance isn’t always tight and the production is very rough around the edges, but that actually provides them with a measure of comfortingly-familiar indie charm. Particularly the first half of the album leaves me with a warm, refreshing nostalgia that I am not accustomed to finding with instrumental and/or post-rock artists, who often tend toward more serious, cinematic soundscapes. There is a raw quality to these initial Childspeak recordings that is endearing, like getting to watch a really good local band perform prior to breaking out wider. There is also a sense of lawlessness at play here, as if the band are making up the rules as they go. This results in strange but enticing juxtapositions of ideas like what you hear on “Ginger Dime,” which sounds like very early Explosions in the Sky set against a funk-fueled bassline. It’s enjoyably disarming for anyone who has spent an inordinate amount of time listening to music and found themselves tiring of formula.
As indicated previously, there is no praise for “Day Dream Sparkle Party” that comes without (hopefully) constructive criticism as well. One of the things that has been drilled into my brain through years of Grad School and magazine work is “Tighten! Tighten! Tighten!” As an individual with a proclivity for rambling myself, I am now very conscious of such tendencies. The band absolutely could have tailored this down into a six or seven song release, rather than the ten tracks it stands at currently, and it would have increased the album’s power. As I have commended them for surveying an array of ideas, I must also criticize them for re-visiting some of the same ground too often during the album’s final three songs. They could have cherry-picked a few ideas from these tracks and either worked them into earlier songs, or shown the discipline to save them for a later date. Perhaps they were eager to get as much as they could onto this initial release, but sometimes less is more, and you have to know when to hold something back until it is finely tuned.
“Ghost Pepper,” if we’re being honest, has no business being on a finished record. It sounds like a band practice jam – some cool ideas, but far from a final product. “Winterdome” and “Helium Paperweight” close out the album with a somewhat disappointing familiarity, rather than the inventive punch I was hoping for. The inclusion of these songs does the album a real injustice; at 6-7 tracks, Childspeak could have made their presence known and exited leaving the listener wanting more, but instead the album concludes on something of a whimper.
That being said, Childspeak is a band that deserves a chance, and that chance will be granted through the embrace and support of listeners. “Day Dream Sparkle Party” is currently available as a name-your-price download on Band Camp. I’ll be interested to see what the future holds. If they can tighten their composition, and manage to improve their production and instrumentation without sacrificing their lo-fi indie vibe and more adventurous sensibilities, they may be onto something very enticing.