There are many theories on what separates good bands from great ones. The easy answer would be the music, of course. Yet it’s so much more than that. One friend of mine suggested that it was noise that separated good music from bad music. And yet there’s so much bad music that has its share of noise. It could be argued that stage presence and universality has something to do with it. But I’m inclined to disagree. What really separates the good from the great is mystique. It’s all in what you don’t know, what you want to know, and the mythology that’s created somewhere in-between. It belongs to the bands that can’t get along, but compress their tension into a work of genius for that short time they can get their shit together. It belongs to bands with no history, or a really shady one. It belongs to bands that do their own thing, no explanation given, fans mystified.
It may be a bit premature to say this — nonetheless I have a good feeling — but Flotation Toy Warning has mystique. Their origins are mysterious, possibly beginning in Venice when test pilot Donald Drusky met musical instrument inventor Don LeCannes. Now, we know them as the band’s singer and drummer, respectively. But this legend seems a little too bizarre to be truthful, even if it isn’t that hard to believe.
Musically, however, this mystique is brought to life in a carnival of sights and sounds (well, really just sounds), echoing the joyous psychedelia of The Flaming Lips, the impassioned balladry of Jeff Buckley and the quirky fuzz-pop of Grandaddy. The London group winds up a series of whimsical samples on opener “Happy 13,” a cinematic opener with a combination of sounds both timeless and retro. Accordions, old-timey backing vocals and Drusky’s subdued baritone make for an intriguing, mesmerizing lead into an album where landscape changes in an instant and nothing is ever quite what it seems.
The Grandaddy comparison is never more perfect than it is on “Popstar Researching Oblivion,” a grandiose choral pop song with relatively simple backing music and beats. Drusky echoes the sweet tenor of Jeff Buckley on the bittersweet “Losing Carolina; For Drusky,” while “Made From Tiny Boxes” borrows the melody from Neil Young’s “Cripple Creek Ferry” for an eerie trip-hop. The nine-minute “Donald Pleasance,” by comparison, is far longer than it’s 90 second predecessor, but succeeds as a sublime, if lengthy, lullaby.
Many of these songs tread well past five minutes. In fact, only three of these ten tracks are less than six. But when compared to a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, that’s nothin’. Only a few instances ever really seem that long, like on the somewhat aimless “Fire Engine on Fire pt. 1.” Part two, however, is a prettier, singing-saw led ballad in the vein of one of Mercury Rev’s Deserters Songs highlights.
With a mixture of curious sounds, unusual arrangements, and their strange balance of joy and sadness, Flotation Toy Warning not only live up to their mysterious reputation, but craft an entire world of mystique on this wonderful release. Bluffer’s Guide To the Flight Deck may take a few listens, and even then you won’t necessarily figure them out. But it won’t really matter, in the long run. As long as they can filter their quirks into a strange and beautiful sound like this, that’s all you’ll ever need.
Sparklehorse – It’s A Wonderful Life
Mercury Rev – Deserters’ Songs
Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.