Assorted fruits of wrath
An inside look at the upcoming EP by Chico’s Clouds on Strings
Chico, CA 95928
The five Chico State music majors who make up local experimental rock outfit Clouds on Strings have always admired albums of high ambition and purpose.
“I don’t like songs you have to pull off an album,” said keyboardist Josh Hegg. “We try to arrange our music in a coherent package, like all the best albums. Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band] and Dark Side of the Moon are meant to be considered as a whole. That’s how we like to consume music, so that’s how we make music.”
Logically enough, their forthcoming four-song EP, Pomology (which will be performed in full for the first time at Café Coda on Dec. 2) is a loose concept album compressed into a short format, albeit with a fairly outlandish theme. Each track embodies the characteristics and personality of a particular fruit—more specifically, apple, banana, kiwi and grapefruit.
For Clouds on Strings, the apple is the “gateway fruit,” a produce staple, and therefore “Apple” is the introductory track on the EP. The song itself features prominent violin work courtesy of Matt Weiner and lush, layered vocals by lead singer and guitarist Michael Bone, a mad-scientist type whose eccentricities are conveyed properly enough on record. As one might expect with a band that cites Frank Zappa, Rush and King Crimson as influences, there are compositional twists and turns intended to play with the listener’s expectations—the sound shifts from an uplifting Legend of Zelda-type adventure theme in odd times to straightforward rock riffage reminiscent of Boston or Kansas, and then back.
“Banana,” according to drummer Matt Franklin, is as exotic and playful as its fruity namesake and represents the heaviest material they have ever produced. The effect of crunchy guitars, borderline aggressive vocals and a fuzzed-out solo from bassist Randall Jangula is particularly striking in the context of an album that leans heavily on the clean, clinical sounds of ’70s prog rock. The song owes its Mediterranean vibe to a harmonic minor scale that imparts a sense of foreign excitement.
“‘Banana’ is seductive and exotic,” Hegg said. “It peels back layers to reveal its inner contents. You know, like an onion.”
The band claims “Kiwi” is cute, sweet and overlooked, constantly living in the shadow of the ever-popular apple and banana. In other words, this is intended to be the album’s understated acoustic ballad. As it turns out, a Clouds on Strings acoustic ballad can’t help getting all super proggy, either, as it comes complete with a brain-frying jazz-fusion keyboard solo. However, this is where Bone’s vocals are at their most dynamic and emotive, layering wall after wall of delicate harmonies to wonderful effect.
“Not even a bit of Auto-Tune here,” Franklin said in admiration as he adjusted the volume on his bedroom mixing board to let the vocals stand alone. “This is all him.”
Hegg fittingly describes the EP’s final track, “Grapefruit,” as bittersweet. The track is the result of two collaborative writing sessions between him and Bone—one where they sat in a café writing down abstract words that reminded them of grapefruit, and one where they took to their garage in hopes of striking instrumental gold.
“We locked ourselves in the garage until we wrote a good riff,” Hegg said. “It took a long time. I was so hungry.”
The aforementioned riff is, admittedly, pretty sweet. Hegg favors an acoustic piano tone that intertwines with some snarling guitar work from Bone. “Grapefruit,” like each song on Pomology, ends on a variation of the same lick in the same key, adding to the album’s cohesive feel.
Pomology is the sort of shameless exercise in conceptual art-rock that would normally pigeon-hole a band into a narrow fan base, but the execution of the material is so convincing they are sure to extend their appeal outside the usual circles.
“Our writing style has become more composed,” Hegg said. “We settled with our last album. Old material just becomes not as technically or emotionally satisfying to play—we’ll see in a year if we still like playing these songs.”