What’s in a name? Estrangers may sound like a hostile band, but they’re really just a bunch of melody-loving popsters from North Carolina, championing a sound that connects the dots between ‘50s rock & roll, ‘60s psych, ‘80s New Wave, and ‘90s indie rock. (Sorry, 1970s — you’re still cool.)
Analog synths and washed-out guitars swirl their way through Season of 1000 Colors, the band’s newest release. There’s more reverb on the album than My Morning Jacket’s early work, but Estrangers anchor all of the tunes with the sort of bold hooks that used to land bands a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show. Even instrumental songs like “Moonraker,” which sounds like the theme to an ‘80s action movie, are almost absurdly hummable.
Looking for your new summertime album? Here it is.
Winston-Salem-based Estrangers last sonic trek, the humble Sunmelt EP, was decidedly rougher around the edges than its 2011 album, Black Ballroom. The five-piece outfit seems to have been yearning for the opposite approach on its sophomore full-length Season of 1000 Colors. The degraded acoustics of its previous effort are traded for a sterilized sheen, making the earnestness of pieces like bolting pop tune "Monarchs" almost disarming. But there's no need for alarm: the surf-tinged track is full of space, letting the band's instrumentation hang in the open air while waves of warm guitars knock up against equally maxed-out keyboards as vocalist Philip Pledger see-saws his way through the tune.
On the strength of their latest LP, Season of 1000 Colors, the Winston-Salem quintet Estrangers have moved to the front of the line for North Carolina’s next breakout act.
Estrangers’ growth arc has been steep and impressive. The analog textures of its 2011 debut, Black Ballroom, drew comparisons—not all of them complimentary—to the Phil Spector-friendly songs of regional neighbors The Love Language. For that, some dismissed Estrangers as trend-surfers, paying scant attention to the hooks buried beneath.
But singer/songwriter Philip Pledger and company followed quickly with the Sunmelt EP early the next year, and the blend of psychedelic synth flavors and confectionary pop showed greater ambition and songwriting refinement. Now, with these dozen pop nuggets from Season of 1000 Colors, Estrangers doesn’t so much break the mold as refine it into something with better focus and reach. It’s a half-hour joyride through summer pop riffs, all propelled by pounding 4/4 beats.
The grander hooks glow with rich, warm textures, the gift of recording to 2-inch tape. Rather than just pile on additional layers, Pledger’s songs have begun drawing out certain elements—the pounding piano of “Scatterheart,” the roller-rink Wurlitzer on the summer paean “Dayzd,” the sinister riff on “Moonraker”—into the spotlight. Estrangers pull this all together magnificently on “Monarchs,” an orchestral-pop dynamo that encompasses the energy and pathos of the Replacements.
Estrangers’ music may link more comfortably now to the synth-friendly sound of ’80s pop, but the coup here is Pledger and band do it without conjuring any of that era’s more regrettable tropes. With Estranger’s latest leap forward, it’s as though adding the ’60s and ’80s together brought us into the vivid present.
Of all the bright, young pop-rock bands bursting onto the Carolina scene, Winston-Salem's Estrangers might be the most ambitious. In their first two years, they released two albums that were as different from each other as they could be while still maintaining the group's lively personality. 2011's Black Ballroom was a purposefully bombastic slab of old-school pop that recalled The Love Language in its ragged intensity. Last year's Sunmelt EP subverted that formula, twisting songs with lo-fi psychedelics like a tape that had been miraculously warped when left out in the sun. Today, Shuffle is proud to premiere "Love's Pure Light," the first single from Estrangers' forthcoming third effort. The currently untitled LP will be self-released as a digital download on April 22 with a vinyl pressing arriving in time for the group's May 11 release show at Krankies in Winston-Salem. The song pushes in a steely, New Wave-inspired direction, propelled by the cutting loop of the main guitar riff, the chugging muscle of its relentless bass line, and the comforting gauze of fuzzy synthesizers and stately piano. Philip Pledger's earnest croon is built up with effects and overdubs, accentuating the emotional potency of his lovelorn lyrics. All told, it's an assured offering that finds the Estrangers coming into their own after three years of experimentation.
With three of the state's premier pop-rock up-and-comers crammed onto one bill, this installment of Local Band Local Beer night is a must. Winston-Salem's Estrangers pursue roughshod retro-rock romance with the abandon of Raleigh's The Love Language, but their taste for subtle sonic trickery gives them added intrigue. The Lollipops are more reserved but every bit as effective, riding fuzzy and frenetic acoustic shambles and buzzing synth lines to catchy conclusions. Charlotte's Jon Lindsay offers the easiest access point in the opening slot; he transplants Sloan's slacker-pop hooks beneath light-psych atmospherics.
In my dream, an ozone sky sucks the color from the seaside until it looks like a faded, hand-painted postcard. The beach is deserted, except for a distant gazebo where a clean-cut 1950s couple slow dances. And Estrangers provide the soundtrack. The lo-fi Winston-Salem sextet delivers dreamy/creepy fuzz-pop with yearning broken-hearted vocals. Boasting a gauzy sound that recalls the third, eponymous Velvet Underground LP, Estrangers evoke the pristine chamber pop of The Zombies and the wistful melodies of '50s crooner Ricky Nelson. Dual guitars add Jesus and Mary Chain bursts of over-modulated squall, augmented by a pair of jaunty-but-eerie Carnival of Souls keyboards and driving Dave Clark Five drums. It's fun but slightly queasy, like stumbling upon a sock-hop hosted by David Lynch, complete with free nitrous oxide for all.