CD Review: Dream Pop Gets Serious — the Ambitious Reach of Candy Claws

The latest LP from the dream pop band Candy Claws turns out to be its most profound and impressive statement to date.

Ceres & Calypso in The Deep Time by Candy ClawsFlannelgraph Records.

Cover art for Ceres & Calypso in The Deep Time.


Too often, dream pop is too damned dreamy for its own good—it is a genre consistently marred by a sense of thematic and esthetic complaisance. Its artists seem content to pull together uninspired arrangements that merely layer on piles of ethereal textures, the tunes revolving around the same trite, trancy things sung in voices smothered in sickening amounts of reverb.

Still, since the genre’s genesis in the mid 80s, there have been a few precious exceptions. In 1999, The Flaming Lips and Sigur Rós released The Soft Bulletin and Ágætis byrjun (respectively)—two classic albums that balanced dream pop’s warm, accessible sound with complex lyricism and exciting, multi-phased song structures. However, triumphs such as these have become increasingly rare.

Now, defying the unimaginative status quo, comes Candy Claws. The Fort Collins-based duo consisting of Kay Bertholf and Ryan Hover have set out, in their own words, “to discover what dream pop really sounds like. We’ve embraced the pop format because it’s one of the most fascinating challenges in music—to create pop songs that explore new realms of sound.”

The latest LP from the band, Ceres & Calypso in The Deep Time, turns out to be its most profound and impressive statement to date. Vocalist Karen McCormick has entered the fold, effectively making the act a trio. Ryan and Kay have also enlisted Chicago poet Jenn Morea to pen the lyrics while NYC composer Bryan Senti is handling the orchestral accompaniment. Upping the artistic ante further, Ceres & Calypso is an intricately-structured concept album, split into thirds to offer a transcendental account of each age of the Mesozoic Era.

The upshot is one of the most ambitious and adventurous dream pop projects in recent memory. The ingenuity is clear from the opening tune, “Into the Deep Time,” which is driven by a parading, enveloping synth texture that manages to come across as both heavenly and heavy at the same time. The airy cymbal crashing in the background, along with the trio’s breathy but commanding vocals, make the track sound (and feel) larger-than-life.

Admittedly, the singing throughout this album does sometimes come off as sonic wallpaper. As is the case of too many dream pop artists, the vocals are treated as simply another texture. However, Candy Claws’ vocal performance here feels as if it set out to be subtle: the mix doesn’t suggest that we are dealing with a reticent band trying to cover up a lack of ability—a deceitful practice that sadly pervades the genre.

The exploration of the Triassic Period continues with the blooming, maraca-propelled “White Seal,” followed by the plodding and particularly shoegazy “Fell in Love.” The era is capped off with “Pangea Girls,” whose guitar and synth tones lend the track a bit of a new-wave vibe.

The Jurassic period is kicked off with “New Forest,” a ditty in the style of 60’s surf pop but with muddy, distorted guitar riffs galore. The next number, “Transitional Bird,” is arguably the disc’s glorious centerpiece, its bouncy, garage rock verses giving way to powerful, deliberately-paced choruses that soar to fantastic heights—much like the magnificent bird that the track’s lyrics hymn.

of Candy Claws

Kay Bertholf and Ryan Hover of Candy Claws

Another one of the LP’s standout tracks is “Charade,” which is a festive, baroque pop tune driven by a French accordion melody. The Jurassic Period comes to an end with “Fallen Tree Bridge,” a turbulent tango married to a Spaghetti Western film score

The Cretaceous Period begins on a rather tropical note with the kettle drum-filled “Birth of the Flower.” The sound becomes even tenser with the rapidly ascending and descending scales on “Illusion” but then mellows out again with the penultimate track, “Night Ela,” whose spacious and serene instrumental seems to be cloud rap-inspired. “Where I Found You,” reprises the melody of the opening track, ending the album on a cyclical note.

Ceres & Calypso in The Deep Time is not only an extraordinary success as a genre experiment but stands on its own as a a powerful collection of tuneful songs. Candy Claws is an act much needed in the sedate world of dream pop—here are performers eager to create arrangements and approaches that shake up the usual reverie.

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