KRANK 100: Stars of the Lid: …and Their Refinement of the Decline (2007)
I’ve been listening to The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (KRANK 050) and …and Their Refinement of the Decline a lot in the last week, trying to grasp more deeply what it is that separates the two, and to understand what it is about Refinement that I like more. Make no mistake: Tired Sounds is nearly perfect. It’s one of the best releases of Kranky’s entire twenty years. But Refinement is not nearly perfect—it is perfect.
The distance between the two is incremental, and “refinement” probably is the best word for the difference. The album picks up right where Tired Sounds left off—itself a giant creative leap beyond the rest of the band’s discography. Calling Stars of the Lid “guitar-based drone” no longer fits the bill. They’ve added a mini-orchestra to their ranks which has elevated their sound way beyond the duo’s lo-fi beginnings in the early/mid-90s. Refinement in some ways inverts the role of the added instrumentation as used on Tired Sounds. Where the strings and horns gave newfound depth to Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride’s guitars, it feels the other way on this album. Strings, horns, and piano are often the focal instruments, with Wiltzie and McBride’s guitars providing an underpinning to the tracks (if they are present at all). The duo function much less as bandleaders, much more as composers. The resulting music is the very embodiment of beauty at an epic scale.
So that takes care of “guitar-based.” Now let’s tackle “drone.” Refinement doesn’t drone. It breathes.
Nearly every track is a series of immaculately rendered chords swelling and receding at an ocean-like pace. And while volume swells are nothing new to Stars of the Lid, the grace of the swells on this album are unparalleled. The album reaches these exquisite peaks when, occasionally, a piano (“Don’t Bother They’re Here”) or violin (“A Meaningful Moment Through a Meaning(less) Process”) drop a simple melody into the spaces between swells. The pleasure to be found in these rare melodic breaks is almost immeasurable.
The exception to Stars of Lid’s m.o. is Refinement's final track, “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface.” At nearly eighteen minutes, it is by far the longest track on the album. It also feels the most distinct—a single elongated chord, its notes made from guitars + string section, creates a slowly ebbing sine wave. If the first ninety minutes of Refinement are about deep breaths and stillness, “December Hunting” tilts downward toward sleep. Then, nearly at the end, some fourteen minutes in, a majestic four-note melody finally blooms from cello and violin to send the record out—as if it were time now to open your eyes, breathe in once more, and face a new day.