The most successful bands are often the ones that can give off the image of a unified front: of enjoying their own band-world so much that you just can’t bear not to want to get in on it. This impression often dominates the image of the band, a concept that intersected with post-rock ‘n’ roll commercialism and crystallized in the era of classic rock – think of the Band’s living in their big pink house; Frank Zappa’s band of cross-dressing, virtuosic misfits; the Stones getting high together in Keith Richards’ chataeu; Led Zeppelin partying insanely together, playing for hundreds of thousands. More recently, commercialization and focus on individual artists has forced more nuanced portrayals, but the reflection is still there in Radiohead’s anti-corporate avant-garde front; Edward Sharpe leading his sloppy, ecstatic horde around the country; Animal Collective finding their own compellingly weird electro-tribal wavelength. Even the highly manufactured Beatles depended highly on the image of them thinking as one, acting as one, wearing matching suits, spending all their time together, and loving it (parodied in Help! by their adjoining rowhouses that open up into a single giant room in which they all live).
Massachusetts quintet Bunwinkies present more or less as a family, although only two of them seem to be related. You imagine them living together in a house, gardening, traveling with vintage oversized trunks, outsider darkness lapping at their days. It’s an image that’s claimed a lot of American bands, going back to the Band, back through Woody Guthrie and whoever came before that. It’s a young person’s romantic vision: world-weary, transient, at times possibly ironic (dig the picaresque and hilariously deadpan spoken interlude on “Fools Clock”). But rarely are those bands so flat-out good. There’s barely a moment on this album that isn’t approaching the sublime.
The arresting opener, the title track, sets a dark, impressionistic mood: “you pass with flying colors / colors fly as you pass.” From here, things take on an appealing garage-roots sort of flavor, with longing vocals, and twinkling auxiliary keyboard, autoharp, accordion arrangements. “William Cullen Bryant” is a more uptempo tune with meandering guitar leads, retaining its sense of longing. It’s followed by the droning “Fretful & Lost,” an extraordinary, unique song brushing against the brooding of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs.” “Fine, fine, all the time / give me the mint and I’ll spend every dime / just to stay home by the road / and who cares where it goes?” Images of home rub up against references to trains and wanderlust, but the tension is ever-present: “I call trouble and joy by the same name / just history,” as mostly-lead vocalist Beverly Ketch sings on “The Sign.” But the cherry on top for me is “OOOEEE,” a song with more experimental touches that’s just as good as anything on Animal Collective’s still-amazing Sung Tongs LP.
The production of Constellations like an old hat, with the crispness of tape adding to the band’s vintage feel. I keep thinking about this band playing together, and singing together. Here, the Band comparison remains apt: vocals are sometimes dripping reverb, sometimes sung in a group, sung by different people. As with the boys from Big Pink, it feels like this is a tight-knit bunch making this album both for and against the world, but determined to meet it on their own terms.