The Great Depression: In A Starry State

Paul Whyte

This week I ran short of new Twin Ports albums to review. Thankfully, I have several back up plans for when this happens. One of my first back up options is to dip into the regional pile of CDs and sometimes what I find is definitely worth a listen. In this case The Great Depression’s new album, “In A Starry State,” ended up standing out. They will be officially releasing the album on November 13 at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, so this review ends up being timely.
The band has been around since 1995 and they have released a number of albums, yet they seem to be somewhat obscure. This may have something to do with band founder, Todd Casper, spending ten years in Copenhagen writing music for Scandinavian film and television. The band started up as an “art punk trio” consisting of multi-instrumentalists: Casper, Chadwick Nelson and Thomas Cranley. Back in the day they cut their first album at the somewhat famous Pachyderm Studio nestled in the woods near Cannon Falls, Minnesota, a couple years after Nirvana recorded “In Utero” there. The trio met engineer, Brent Sigmeth, at the session and he joined the band. Fast forward nearly two decades: in 2013 Casper and Sigmeth worked together in Hollywood scoring music for the Amazon comedy series, Betas, and around this time period they worked on this new album.
It’d suffice to say that there are some talented musicians with a bunch of studio experience in this band. Before getting into the music, it’s worth noting that “In A Starry State” is a concept album. It’s inspired by the science fiction romance VALIS trilogy by Philip K. Dick. I haven’t read the books but at a glance there seems to be a lot of philosophical, theological and metaphysical references in them.
The album starts out with an intense droning of spacey orchestral synth sound and a female narrator. “Once luminous powers scattered/devine sparks/now trapped in matter/the dream is dark/the way is long/you’ll forget me/but I won’t be gone.” Without any hesitation a rocking drum beat starts to fade into what is the first actual song, “Hey Go Easy (Sepentina).”  The track is a steady paced indie-rock song infused with synth. Throughout the album the hooks from both vocals and instruments are strong and catchy, while there is a definite feel to this album, the band shifts around between what could be considered indie-rock and more experimental elements.
The beginning of the track, “New Salem,” begins with a spacey loop of ambient sounds before breaking into a synth-pop/rock song with choruses that are debatably danceable. There’s more to the song than just a catchy chorus. There’s all sorts of backing vocals and production techniques which gives this and many of the tracks on the album a dramatic impact. Some of the lyrics on the album make references to space and other mystical themes, “if you can read the symbols/divine science from outer space/better bite your tongue unless you want it ripped out of your face.” It’s hard to say what is being missed by not reading the books, but some of the lyrics are kind of vague as to what exactly is going on. Two groups that come to mind when trying to describe the sound are Muse and New Order, but of course this band is really doing their own thing and they manage to switch things up quite a bit from track to track, so I use these comparisons loosely.
When it comes to dramatic impact the track, “Visiting on Davenports,” is a pretty yet somewhat melancholy song. The soft verses swirl with small nuances of synths and backing vocals and then the song goes all out with a powerful and epic chorus that pulls the album away from sounding like indie-rock to some sort of space-age rock opera. Lyrically the song is kind of strange, “it’s jello salad, you serve it cold. We’re firing the minister but they haven’t told.” The next verse mentions radishes, so it’s a little out there. It’s best to say this song is more about it’s delivery than the lyrics from what I can make of it.
Songs like, “In A Starry State,” stands in contrast to the previous tracks. It begins with a picked acoustic guitar and sounds that seem to be (or emulate) more traditional instruments such as pedal steel and piano. The song gradually builds into more of a laid back and spacey rock song with drums and an electric guitar with plenty of effects on it. Throughout the album one of the most consistent things that creates the feel of the album is the vocal work between Todd Casper and Wendy Lewis, there’s a lot of impressive energy going on that really drive the songs home.     
There’s really never a dull moment on the album. A song like, “A Dreamy Brochure for Elsewhere,” is aptly named. It utilizes an array of sounds ranging from acoustic guitar to various synth sounds that are woven together into beautiful soundscapes. The song has trippy spoken word lyrics about space, dreams, the universe and the metaphysical mixed in with stunning vocal harmonies.  
Overall, the entire album works out as a unique listening experience. What isn’t exactly catchy in a conventional sense on the album ends up being gorgeous or dramatic. This album is interesting because it’s not really happy or sad, it’s more about the concept that it rides on, a telepathic girl from a parallel universe, and the music itself. Whether it be layers of synths mixed with standard rock instruments or vocal harmonies that have been expertly delivered and produced, “In A Starry State” keeps the listener engaged and lets them into this beautiful world of space that the band has created. There’s little doubt that decades of studio experience made this album a must listen based on production value alone; it’s unlikely they cut this album over a weekend.  The album was recorded at Littlebig Studio in Cannon Falls by Brent Sigmeth. The studio is operated by Sigmeth and has done work with artists like Haley Bonar, Andrew Bird, The Cactus Blossoms and Charlie Parr to name a few.
It’s uncertain if The Great Depression ever plans on playing up here in the Twin Ports. Apparently shows from the band are few and far between, but it’d certainly be interesting to watch them perform some of the material on this album. The album can be listened to on Bandcamp. Either Google “The Great Depression Starry State Bandcamp” or type in