It’s been more than five years now since Karen O yowled her way into the hearts and ears of the unwitting masses with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ jolting debut Fever To Tell, and much longer still since Debbie Harry first peddled Blondie’s disco-flavored rock onto a dance-ready national scene. Musical movements have been born, flourished, withered and died but one thing hasn’t changed: the ability of a powerful female voice and personality to electrify even the most humble of rock outfits. Case in point: Angela Mullenhour of Chicago’s Sybris. The unsuspecting guitar-wielding pixie leads her unpolished but well-meaning cohorts into shuddering forests of viscous noise on second album Into The Trees.
Sybris’ sophomore set is as deliberately wrought as one might expect a relatively unheard of Windy City band to be, frayed on the edges but earnest enough where it counts. The jump to new label Absolutely Kosher (from Flameshovel) and a hand in the recording booth by John Congleton (Mountain Goats, Explosions In The Sky) has cleaned the dust from the grittier corners of the band’s sound, but the real marvel is Mullenhour’s wildly fluctuating vocals, an often awe-inspiring entity unto itself, the lilting voice that lifts her band from the bottom of an otherwise indiscernible indie-rock pig-pile.
At one moment recalling the child-like exuberance of Joanna Newsom, flailing deliriously deep and ecstatic as Björk the next, Mullenhour unleashes a voice her band mates abet with no shortage of reverb and galloping percussion, although they occasionally struggle to keep pace with her vocal acrobatics. Mullenhour’s cues come most recognizably from fellow anti-ingénues Karen O and Emily Haines, in unadulterated outbursts of punk pageantry of the former (“Safety City”), and melodious coos as gentle lullabies of the latter (“Hurt Hawk”).
And while it’s mostly Mullenhour’s magical pipes that sell Into The Trees, musically its reference points are at best engaging and, at worst, still fairly hummable. “Burnout Babies” is a two and a half minute jaunt through collapsing sheets of cymbals and schizo guitar riffs, all post-modern disappointment and tooth-bared snarl. But to be true teases, Sybris withhold the best for last. The album’s final third flaunts by far the band’s best material. Lighter-than-air guitars echo across Mullenhour’s sweetly strained singing in “Mad King,” while her snarky lyricism is spotlighted as much as her voice in the mid-tempo “Saint Veronica,” chock full of chiming guitar and clever snippets of disillusionment: “All the Christians in the lion’s clothing, all the heroes or so they told me.”
A fitting denouement, “The Beach Is Where The Ocean Goes To Die” beautifies a melancholic slow-core jam, its echoes culling from the depths as Mullenhour’s vocals are stripped bare and laid vulnerable against the ghostly backdrop. Simply gorgeous. In retrospect it seems almost counterintuitive for Sybris to have titled this album Into The Trees, as it will more than likely catapult them into the blinding lights of internet blogdom.