Graded on a Curve:
Crown Larks,
Population

Since forming in 2012, Chicago’s Crown Larks have been honing a strain of druggy, free jazzy, post-punky art rocking that should mosey right up to the pleasure centers of folks into Sonic Youth, Oneida, Thee Oh Sees, and by extension, the eternal, ever-loving, expansionist fount of Krautrock. Their sophomore long-player Population extends and strengthens the impressiveness of their debut; it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, cassette, and digital through Satellite Records and Already Dead Tapes.

The list of ingredients discernable in the Crown Larks’ sonic stew is considerable: as outlined above, there is psychedelia, jazziness in both instrumentation and execution, post-punk with a nod toward No Wave, and art rock paying special attention to German and indie/ u-ground precedent, but they also integrate touches of post-rock, strands of noise rock, and even elements of pop structure. And yet methodical, as the group led by Lorraine Bailey and Jack Bouboushian avoid coming off as a mere hodge-podge of influences.

When taking their comfort with abstraction into account, this is doubly impressive. For this record, Bouboushian is credited with vocals, guitar, organ, and microphone as Bailey tackles vocals, keyboards, alto saxophone, flute, and synth bass. They are joined by Bill Miller on drums and percussion and Matt Puhr on bass, with numerous guests deepening Population’s palette; there is Linda Malonis on synth, Curt Oren on alto and baritone sax, Peter Gillette on trumpet, and Patrick Sundlof on tabla, as Brian J. Sulpizio adds a few handclaps.

Opener “Howls” almost seems to emerge from the midst of a loose psych-inflected ballroom passageway, but it quickly tightens up to dish electric keyboard-driven Kraut-tinged forward motion. Atmospheric trumpet glides atop as guitar patterns fortify the velocity and tendrils of flute reassert the psych angle heard at the start; as its tones mingle with the keyboard, the deal is sweetened.

All the while, the intensity rises until it bursts forth in a post-punk racket that’s enhanced by Bouboushian’s agitated vocal. It’s punctuated with a crescendo of abstraction redolent of Sonic Youth throwing down with Lester Bowie, but rather than explore this scenario at length, they jump right back into the previously established momentum and then move toward the conclusion.

It’s all over in under five minutes. Population is three cuts deeper and roughly five minutes longer than full-length debut Blood Dancer, but the individual selections remain sharp and padding is nowhere in sight. The persistent pulsation of “Circus Luvv” comes accentuated with aural convulsions, resulting in a Euro art rock vibe (reinforced by the organ in the cut’s mid-section) injected with indie lethargy (this side of the equation is heightened by the Bouboushian’s singsong lyrics).

The front portion of “React” deepens the indie sensibility, though Crown Larks specialize in a dark, ragged ’90s strain of the style. As the track progresses, the collective thrust expands into a spacy section, with the Fender Rhodes-ish keyboard lending a hint of post-rock fusion before shifting into a gallop for the conclusion. It leads into the Bailey-sung ’80s NYC art-funk of “TFZ Interlude.”

Next comes the non-rudimentary rhythm, intermittent keyboard cascades, and interwoven guitars and vocals of “Lithhops Life,” as the blend of no wave, avant-jazz valve splatter and overt political consciousness comprising the succinct album highlight “Swoon (for Fred Hampton)” follows. “Burn It Down” is decidedly more song-like, and indeed, is momentarily almost straightforward rock; reeds add distinctiveness as the piece’s unusualness is gradually increased.

“Watchful, Spellbound” begins rather sparsely, with just keys and voice, but wastes no time in morphing into a torrent of noise rock and a culminating free jazz freakout. The tribal psych of penultimate cut “Goodbye,” complete with Bailey’s fluting, reestablishes the atmosphere of “Howls,” but along the way it’s also distinguished as a nifty slice of anthemic songwriting.

“Stranger (Unce Down to the New Store)” ups the tempo for a needling, throbbing, nicely warped dual-voiced finale. In conclusion, Population’s parts flow together quite well; although the album doesn’t ultimately register as one long multi-faceted piece, sequential listening occasionally suggests this circumstance, and it’s a fine follow-up to Blood Dancer.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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