Estrangers: Eternal Sunshine of the Melodic Mind
By Ryan Snyder
“I always get kind of fidgety, or feel pretty valueless if I’m not doing something,” Philip Pledger confessed, sitting outside of the Winston-Salem dive Single Brothers. The stimulus of organizing the second Phuzz Phest, the four-day homage to left-of-center rock and pop that dominated area rock clubs in early April, had likely waned by this point. His six-piece pop outfit Estrangers is off until mid-June and likewise for The Bayonets, where he plays lead guitar. Without something big to work towards, Pledger might have been feeling a little less than self-actualized. But these days, that’s still rare.
Most days, he’s found manning the counter at Krankies, Winston’s venerable coffee and live- music institution, and the namesake for the local music compilation he curates. It’s served as a home of sorts for Estrangers, a dual keyboard, twin-guitar foundry of sunny analog pop that’s steeped in the music of bands like The Zombies and The Walkmen, not to mention North Carolina’s The Love Language. The band’s lineup has remained fairly consistent since its inception last June, but as it stands, Pledger is bracing for the potential loss of two key members. Bassist Trevor Reece is expected to move to California, while keyboardist and singer Jodi Burns’ burgeoning opera career and solo project could pull her away from the fold.
“Jodi is the most naturally gifted musician that most people would ever meet in their lives. She sings at a world-class level, and people like her are very, very rare,” Pledger said. “It’s a challenge to find a place within a band that doesn’t pay very much.”
It’s not difficult to discern Burns’ parts from those of Pledger and synth player David Todd Murray on Black Ballroom, the band’s 2011 debut EP. They stand out from the wooliness of laconic psych-pop gems “House Ghosts” and “Tell Her No Thanks” with the precision of classically trained fingers. The juxtaposition of her analog warmth on the Korg SV1 with the more contemporary sounds of Murray’s Korg M3 have been the hallmark of the band’s live sets, too.
But Pledger has already proven himself something of a creative pathfinder. His insertion into the lead guitar slot with The Bayonets (né Caleb Caudle & the Bayonets) prior to the recording of their 2012 album Driver was key to the band’s evolution from No Depression-style roots folk to ass-kicking barroom rock & roll. No solid plans have been made in the event Burns or Reece must depart, but there are suggestions of a new direction on Sunmelt, Estrangers’ new four-song EP of demos recorded between January and March with Murray and drummer Pat Nolan.
The new songs suggest a future in which the band’s dynamic shifts from contrasting clear and cloudy pop to melodies enveloped in a thick, quasi-electronic haze and delivered with saturnalian jubilance. Drums burst into the mix of the title track and then disappear under torrents of vocal gain — the happenstance of iPhone recording fidelity (used for the drum tracks). The borderline creepy “AM Radio Summer Beach Hit #3” sounds like Jan & Dean as heard during an ether binge, Murray’s summary of it “feeling like a mustached man with binoculars at the beach” speaking to the song’s strange vibe.
They’re demos, though, so a re-recording of at least two Sunmelt tracks is on tap, possibly for a full-length release next year. Still, its sound is largely a result of skilled studio trickery, meaning Estrangers’ next challenge is to reproduce it live. Murray, a part-time electronic musician who draws deeply from Com Truise and Neon Indian, will take on greater weight in the event of attrition.
“No matter what happens, there is going to be less timidity about talking out and coordinating our parts,” Murray explains. “If (guitarist) Mike (Wallace) and Philip keep playing together, there’s going to be a lot more playing off of each other, and if Jodi stays in the band, I hope we’ll do the same.”