Graded on a Curve: Casper & the Cookies, Dingbats

Stylistic audacity is the undoing of many bands. Not so with Casper & the Cookies, though because of their refusal to fit into one tidy bag their discography can be aptly described as an uneven affair. Due in part to concision and intensity the Cookies’ fourth LP Dingbats is their best, but that doesn’t mean its 13 songs offer a streamlined ride.

Athens GA’s Casper & the Cookies stretches all the way back to the late-’90s in relation to one Jason NeSmith, a multi-instrumentalist some may recognize as a touring member of his municipal cohorts Of Montreal. However, NeSmith hasn’t been out on the road with the Kevin Barnes-led outfit since the mid portion of last decade.

Subsequently, the Cookies have issued two full-lengths (their debut appeared in ‘03) and assorted singles/EPs, the majority of it via the label Happy Happy Birthday to Me (though Dingbats comes attached to the imprint Wild Kindness), so the connection to Of Montreal might not seem all that relevant. In fact, by now it’s quite possible NeSmith and his bandmates have grown tired of reading about the relationship.

But as it underscores Casper & the Cookies’ often bold pop unconventionality the link is worth bringing up. Additionally, the association earns them extended family status in the Elephant 6 family tree (the Cookies supported The Apples in Stereo on a nationwide tour in ’07 and figured on a split single with head-Apple Robert Schneider’s side group the Marbles the same year) and places them solidly into Athens’ new breed alongside Tunabunny, Muuy Biien, and New Sound of Numbers (who happen to include in their ranks Cookie Kay Stanton).

Instead of relying upon activities of ten years vintage, NeSmith and company seem eager to emphasize the sturdy and detectable influences on their current work, namely such acts as the dB’s and Game Theory; as stated, the Cookies are most-certainly pop, but they’re also discernibly ambitious in the execution. And if the name checks in the previous sentence are putting you in a guitar-pop classique frame of mind, that’s not a bit inappropriate, but there are a few noticeable differences that rise up almost immediately.

Pop-rock songwriting a la Stamey, Holsapple, and Miller is very much in evidence on Dingbats, but throughout much of the LP this aspect seems to have fallen under the sway of a big ol’ bag of drugs. And it’s a quality heightened by their large-scaled approach to studio technique; as odd as this record can be the whole never lacks polish.

Opening track “Improvvisamente Ardito” features extroverted guitar riffing that Bob Pollard would likely do back flips over, and when combined with those maxist production values the cut mildly recalls TVT-era Guided by Voices with a touch of old pal Schneider thrown in. It’s a big sound indeed, and it sets the stage for what’s to come on the album.

And what’s immediately in store is a brief segment titled “Doomed to Repeat.” While mainly serving as a transition into the next number, it also provides a reminder that the Butthole Surfers once hung their hats in Athens; the piece’s speed manipulated vocals are particularly reminiscent of the studio tomfoolery found on Hairway to Steven.

It’s a nice tidbit that quickly gives way to the boisterous post-punk atmosphere of “Drug Facts.” Specifically, the tune conjures an art-funk ambiance that while ultimately distinct is surely tethered to their Athens predecessors Pylon. Partially through short blasts of brittle guitar riffing the song feels more uptempo than it really is; it should go down a storm in the club setting. But apropos to its title, the weird voices remain, though the whole thing is also pop-focused enough to not fall out of step with the leader’s above-stated inspirations.

But if once clearly NeSmith’s project, the Cookies have for a good while now been far more than just his show. “Jennifer’s House” finds Stanton stepping front and center for a rambunctious full-throated merger of melodiousness and rock heft. It’s also of decidedly late-‘70s vintage, the prior era fitting since the subject matter tangles with the wild memories of growing up.

The hint of punk that informs the cut brings to mind the liberating forces of both Harry, Debbie and Smith, Patti (especially when Stanton, Kay belts out the line “Jennifer’s house is made of bricks/Jennifer’s house…smells like shit!”), though the confident instrumental swagger also suggests the stripped-down side of the era’s classic rock (think early Petty, Tom). One of Dingbat’s best songs, it also unsurprisingly ended up on that split single with the Marbles.

Next up is “Amphetamines.” Did I mention a large sack of drugs? With vocals by Stanton, the whole exhibits a strong grip upon pop-rock structure, though from there the aura of illicit substances increases even further as the record takes an unusual and somewhat questionable turn. “Lemon Horses,” sung by NeSmith in an affected voice seemingly reaching for the strains of Wayne Coyne, is a story-song that’s scenario flips the balance of power between a highway patrolman and a rock band on tour.

NeSmith as narrator openly pulling on a joint while calling the cop a “fucking redneck” most definitely transitions this tale into a fever-dream, but that’s not really the problem. Far from it, actually; we’ve all probably fantasized at some point (possibly at length) about turning the tables on a ticket-writing authoritarian. Instead, the issue hinges on the track’s nagging novelty vibe; it unfurls like later-period lesser-value Flaming Lips imagining a single by an early-‘70s Arlo Guthrie that had somehow worked himself into a bitter libertarian lather.

That might seem like fun, and in jokey terms, “Lemon Horses” isn’t so bad. In fact, it would work much better as one side of a 45. After over a dozen listens in album context though, it’s a speed bump resistant to leveling off. But after another short bout of Butthole-ish weirdness (“Hermetic Amusements”), the angular “Spin ½” ends the first side on a strong note, one that finishes in vaguely Soft Boys-like territory.

Side two’s opener “Thing for Ugly” references the humorous side of late-‘70s power pop/new wave but without falling fully back into that novelty-esque sinkhole; rather, it offers a smart-aleck air with elements of No Wave via some scratchy guitar textures. “Omni” then diverts into oddball and at times ominous synth-pop to deliver one of the records heaviest entries. It’s followed by Stanton’s very good “White Noise;” as it plays the track summons mild thoughts of Kendra Smith’s solo work.

Often across Dingbats, NeSmith and Stanton (who the internet relates are a couple) intertwine vocally, and the nicely rocking “Sleep Defense” is a prime example. “When the Moon Was in Command” brings the LP to a pleasant if (by now, typically) unexpected conclusion; even with the baroque additives of guest Heather Macintosh’s cello, it’s the most contemporary song on the entire disc, falling predominantly into the new millennium’s indie milieu.

Working greatly in this record’s favor is a lack of sprawl, a trait that harmed their prior long-playing effort, ’09’s double set Modern Silence. And unlike their first two albums (‘03’s Oh! and ‘06’s The Optimist’s Club) this one has almost completely shed the overt feel of an Elephant 6-affiliated project. Instead it hits like the work of band that’s drug-pop diversity is starting to cohere. Dingbats does have its problems, but it also stands as the strongest most likeable release in Casper & the Cookies’ increasingly lengthy existence. Chalk one up for staying power.


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