by Mason Jones
Los Angeles-based ensemble The Moon Upstairs represent the best that can come of reassembling diverse influences and crafting something new, yet recognizable. Listening to Guarding the Golden Apple can, for trainspotters, be an exercise in comparison, but those who don't suffer from those impulses will find 10 impeccably-crafted tunes that fall loosely into a classic-pop-rock category, with up-to-date trimmings.
Band founders Sharif Dumani and Aaron Ebensperger apparently spent some time playing with Cody Chesnutt before starting this group, with Dumani as the principal songwriter and all-around multi-instrumentalist. Joined by Josh Mancell on drums and percussion and Mark Sogomian on guitar, the album also features a number of guests and a small string section. The resulting lineup pulls in everything from lap steel and celesta to melodica, bowed bass, vibraphone and harpsichord.
In less-aware hands, this could end up sounding like a scattered mess, but The Moon Upstairs does a nice job of staying within the bounds of what each song calls for. The core of each is embellished just enough, but the song itself is never lost or buried by excessive orchestration. The opening track, "All is All," serves as a fine example: It opens with a crash of heavy drums, fuzzed-out guitar, and dense keyboards, but everything moves out of the way to let the vocals through. And melodious, melancholy vocals they are, buoyed by just enough harmonious accompaniment. The song isn't afraid to burst into rock at the right times, but it's always contained within a strong pop-psychedelic framework.
"People in the Trees" shows the pure pop side of the band, a bit of a Beatles throwback in a way, with a string section break in the middle that would make George Martin proud. Throughout, the songs bring a variety of influences to mind, but in each case it's more like a hint of recognition than of tribute. "We Can Get By In Time" is an old-school rocker reminiscent of both Neil Young and Lennon, while "My Love," with its lush instrumentation and laid-back crooning, brings to mind Mercury Rev. "Never Thought Twice" is a song that the Flaming Lips would like to have written. The title track starts as the most placid, and least substantial, song here, but when the drums and strings join in, the song takes on an ELO-worthy air that, to these ears, is most definitely a good thing.
Closing the album with the nearly-eight-minute "Sogomiac, the Moon Destroyer" is a risky maneuver, but it works. After an ominous, quiet opening rife with buzzings, gentle drumrolls and plinking strings that has early Pink Floyd all over it, at the four-minute mark the drums crash in with boiling guitar, and the song takes on a chugging stoner-rock vibe. After a well-coordinated halt, the last two minutes bring us back to earth with a gentle '60s-pop flavor, all strummed guitar, Leslie organ, and dreamy vocals.
The Moon Upstairs have pulled off a difficult feat, bringing together disparate, yet connected, styles and making something cohesive with their own individual stamp on it. If you give this album a bit of a chance, the songs will get under your skin and stay with you – and that's the best trick of all.