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April 1, 2003

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Nebraska has seen its fair share of quality indie acts making the pages of many a music magazine as of late, with all of the Saddle Creek bands blowing up (Bright Eyes, the Faint, Cursive, Rilo Kiley). But just a little bit south and to the left of the radar lie Oklahoma and Texas, which have been stating thier cases long before this crew gained a shred of attention. Think the Flaming Lips. Think Spoon. And more recently Trail of Dead, The Gloria Record, Explosions in the Sky, the Starlight Mints, the Polyphonic Spree... Well, get out the chalk and make another mark on the base of the oil tower ‘cause there’s another one from the Southwest that’s comin' out of the woodwork.

This time they’re called Ester Drang, a four-piece out of Broken Arrow, OK, who are just doing their part to continue this recent tradition. While they might not garner as much critical praise as Omaha-native Conor Oberst has and will continue to do, they are still making quite a name for themselves with this, their second full-length and first release on the Jade Tree label, entitled “Infinite Keys.” It also helps that they've been rubbing elbows on the road with the likes of Pedro the Lion and American Analog Set.

The band earns my respect for producing the album on their own, but this time around they’ve enlisted the help of Chris Colbert on the mixing board. You may recognize that name or at least some of his previous credits. Colbert’s been at the helm of more than one notable record, including but not limited to the Lassie Foundation’s Pacifico and the Prayer Chain’s Mercury, a couple of my personal favorites. More recently, he’s worked with Zachary Gresham's Summer Hymns and Elf Power. Colbert is a former member of the late-80s' Breakfast with Amy and the 90s' Duraluxe, as well as having helped to sculpt albums by Morella’s Forest, Joe Christmas and the Billions.

All this talk about Chris C. is not to take away from what Ester Drang themselves have brought to the table with this one. I only mention it to point out that after working with all these bands, Colbert was asked in an interview with what some of his favorites were. The first thing to come out of his mouth was, “I’m really proud of my mix on the new Ester Drang, [Infinite Keys]. A great record”. And he’s absolutely right. It is a great record.

After cultivating their sound for eight years now, have come up with an album that’s quite beautiful, equally haunting and yet gorgeous. It induces daydreams. It causes everything around you to disappear. It’s an expansive canvas for you to paint over with your imagination.

It would be quite difficult to evaluate each track on this album, or at least to highlight the ones that stand out. Because I don’t know if any of them do that very much at all. Don’t get the wrong idea here. In many cases, this could be viewed as a liability, but in this case it could be viewed as a great asset. The songs all gel together to form a wonderful whole, without getting boring. Some lull you to sleep. Some make you want to reach for the heavens. One makes you feel like your stretching backwards on a bed of clouds. The next makes you feel like you’re soaring and weaving through them. At some point, you may feel like you are slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean. At another point, you can picture yourself being tossed against the shore alongside a torrent of foam. The album actually ebbs and flows much like the sea.

In order to create this cascading deluge of sound while holed up in a Denton, TX studio for 10 days, the band utilized a slew of equipment (as noted on their website): several sets of drums, four Fender amps, a loud bass amp, guitars, basses, a sampler, a Rhodes piano, a mini-Korg keyboard, a wurlitzer, and a vibraphone, all pushed through what seems like an arsenal of effects pedals and computer software. Add to this a string quartet and it’s no surprise that this album sounds so dense and encompassing. Oh, let’s not forget one of the bands most valuable instruments either. That would be Bryce Chambers’ voice. I don’t want to come off sounding metrosexual or anything (I know, I know - I’m kidding), but his voice is quite breathtaking and beautiful.

It took some time to notice, but after listening to Infinite Keys quite a bit, I finally began to recognize some referential similarities. On “One Hundred Times”, for instance, I can quickly call to mind Radiohead’s floating-above-the-earth’s-surface “Exit Music (For A Film)”. It actuallys seems pretty obvious throughout this album that the Drang are big fans of OK Computer-era Radiohead. Other times I recalled Mineral’s End Serenading. Ester Drang don’t really sound like Mineral at all (more like TGR); they just stir up the same kind of feelings I get when I listen to that record. There’s probably not many out there that will get this next comparison, but they also remind me of a small Hendersonville, TN band I was fortunate enough to uncover a few years back called Harmonium (sp?), who happened to be big Spiritualized fans.

Anyway, at no point did I think that these guys came off as a ripped off imitation of any of these bands. Like I said, it took some time for me to figure this out. Instead, any respect they may have for these groups has simply been used as one small ingredient that they’ve incorporated into their grandiose recipe. This album is all their own, and I’d be damned proud of it if I were them. It’s divine.

score: 8.0 out of 10

reviewed by: Brett.Andrew.Miotti

'Bout time this band got some more attention in the indie rock world. "Infinite keys" is this Oklahoma quartet's debut for Jade Tree Records. This isn't much of a departure from the band's last full length on Burnt Toast Vinyl, however the majority of the songs on this newest disc are a bit shorter and more formulaic than it's predesessor.

This isn't a bad thing, but some fans may be surprised by the change in song lengths. At any rate, ester drang still create beautifully layered landscapes of sound. Attached to lazy beats that make your head bob you'll find bass, guitar, rhodes and the occasional spattering of saxophone or instruments not included in the band's standard arsenal.

The disc starts off with the almost chaotic sounding "temple mount" then from there steadies itself on a path of melancholy/dreamy atmosphere. Lyrically the album seems anchored around the band's spiritual beliefs without coming off as Jim Bakker-esque.

The Hearing Aide

Mike Jonze and Brett.Andrew.Miotti