Before there was the National, there was Clogs. These two bands have very little to do with each other musically, their only shared traits being Bryce Dessner’s involvement, and being damn good. Those only familiar with Dessner’s work in the National would do very well to familiarize themselves with his original venture, but should be prepared for an altogether different sound. Clogs consists of four classically trained musicians, all congregating at the Yale School of Music. Call them ornately Baroque or Baroquely ornate, the Clogs create intricate collages of sound arranged by bandleader Padma Newsome. The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton is their latest endeavor, sprinkled with dazzling guest appearances and shimmering with master musicianship.
Almost nothing makes me giddier than listening to Shara Worden, and if you’re like me, Creatures will surely delight you. Worden appears on several tracks, most notably the opening vocal tapestry that is “Cocodrillo,” “The Owl of Love” and the folk influenced “On the Edge.” The instrumentation on the latter is absolutely gorgeous, delicate in parts and beautifully urgent in others. Worden, with her operatic chops, has lately been the guest star du jour, especially with her star appearance on The Hazards of Love. Worden doesn’t disappoint in her tracks with Clogs, and fits in perfectly with the classical / folk blend. Not to be outdone, Newsome himself turns in some stunning vocal performances, as on “Red Seas.”
Throughout Creatures, its members put on a master class of instrumentation. Dessner’s guitars, Newsome’s violins and violas, Thomas Kozumplik’s percussion and Rachael Elliott’s bassoon come together to create a mystical whirlpool of hypnotizing sound, drawing the listener in with every pull of the bow and strum of the fingers. Dessner’s National compatriot Matt Berninger appears on the heartbreaking “Last Song.” The track is perfectly suited to Berninger’s dusky vocals. Fans of the National’s heavier material might be taken aback, but those who enjoyed “Fake Empire” and “So Far Around the Bend” may be more inclined to enjoy this track.
Much has also been made of the appearance of Sufjan Stevens, since he’s pretty much stated that he’s given up on recording albums (and only two states in, which is quite a disappointment). Stevens sings and plays banjo on the closer “We Were Here,” but it’s not quite enough of a reason in itself to pick up the album. What is worth the price of the album is the music itself, regardless of guest appearances. Newsome’s creations are uniquely captivating, from the Renaissance-like operatic tracks fronted by Worden to the elegiac instrumental tracks, such as “I Used to Do” and “To Hugo.” The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton is a truly remarkable album that significantly highlights the power inherent in the format.