We Were Flying Kites

by Stripmall Architecture (2009, Self-Released)

I’ve been writing about music for more than a decade now, and I’ve seen a lot of artists come and go (honestly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that 80% of the artists I’ve reviewed over the years are now defunct). But there are some artists who continually stick around, who might go unheard from for a year or two, but then always get back onto my radar for whatever reason.

Ryan and Rebecca Coseboom are two such artists. I became aware of the Cosebooms via their first project, Anymore, which I discovered via a sampler that was offered on an old 4AD e-mail list that I once subscribed to. Then came Halou, their more electronica-minded outfit, which survived and transcended such terms as “trip-hop” and “downtempo” thanks to impeccable programming, plenty of 4AD-esque atmospherics, and Rebecca’s lovely vocals.

But Halou came to an end in 2008 while the group was touring with Bob Mould and the Cosebooms subsequently began Stripmall Architecture. It was originally an outlet for more experimental music than might’ve been associated with the Halou moniker, with live shows incorporating everything from “typical” electronics and guitars to typewriters and toy organs. But with the release of We Were Flying Kites, the Cosebooms have returned a little closer to the fold, so to speak—in many ways, We Were Flying Kites picks up right where Halou left off.

As was the case with Halou, the first thing you notice about We Were Flying Kites is not the driving rhythms or blissed out guitars, but Rebecca’s vocals. Reminiscent of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) and Alison Shaw (Cranes), they’re both coy and ethereal and provide a fragile, emotional core for the band’s music, even when surrounded by distortion and electronic chaos.

Then you notice the recording’s impeccable sound. In addition to his various bands, Ryan Coseboom has worked as producer, composer, engineer, and remixer over the years, and his studio experience shines through in every second. Simply put, We Were Flying Kites sounds amazing, with a polish and sonic density that can only come from years spent finding one’s way around a studio.

But while this is a strength of the album, it also becomes something of a liability. There’s a preternatural sheen to We Were Flying Kites, one that causes portions of the album to slip by unnoticed because they’re so smooth and polished as to not have any rough edges that might grab or hook into the listener. For all of its tumultuous, aggressive sound, it’s surprisingly easy to let the album fade into the background, though it is by no means an ambient or “aural wallpaper” sort of album. (It took me several spins before individual tracks began to stand out against the album’s overall wall of sound.)

And as for the sonic density, it’s sometimes so daunting that it sets your mind a-reeling and it’s tempting to just push things aside so as not to have to process it all. Which, I know, sounds strange given my personal predilection for the densely layered sounds of shoegaze, and that a shoegazer influence lies heavy here. So I’ll follow up with this: for every moment that makes my subconscious mind shut down in safety, there’s one where the density makes for a heady, intoxicating experience—one that has me pressing “Play” again in order to feel that sensation of losing myself within its many folds once more.

The album starts off on an extremely strong note with “Her Words”, a constantly building song full of roiling electronics, tortured guitars, and crashing drums that affirms the band’s recognition of their 4AD influences (“Her Words” would make a fine companion piece to Lush’s “Light from a Dead Star”). “Stop Thief” is another driving track of seesawing guitars and propulsive drumming while Rebecca’s sweet voice sings some rather defiant lyrics.

While a good deal of the album is rather aggressive and, dare I say, “rocking”, its more beguiling moments occur when the band slows things down just a bit. “The Droplet Sounds” takes elements of older Cure albums with a few more shades of Cocteau Twins and sets it all under shimmering, sparkling guitar riffs, and it’s one of my favorite tracks for doing so.

We Were Flying Kites closes with another strong moment that serves as a fine bookend to “Her Words”. The title track may have originally been written several years ago, but it’s cavernous rhythms, spidery guitars, and dub-laced denouement haven’t aged a bit, but rather, feels a little ahead of the time.

Which is an example of what I’ve always appreciated about the Cosebooms’ music: though they are indebted to the past (e.g., 4AD records, shoegazer), their music always has a futuristic feel to it, as if it’s been recorded with urban vistas and environs that won’t exist for another century or so in mind. (Even their earlier output, particularly the Halou output, doesn’t really sound dated despite being frequently lumped in with the whole “trip hop” crowd—and Lord knows that’s not a genre that has aged particularly well.)

That also translates into longevity. In other words, it’s nice to know that the Cosebooms are still here in Opus’ tenth year, and I have no doubt that they’ll be here in its twentieth—and I’ll look forward to hearing what they do then just as much as I enjoy what they do now.