Record Review: With A Series of Circles, Stray Owls Offer Accented Rock | Record Review | Indy Week

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Record Review: With A Series of Circles, Stray Owls Offer Accented Rock

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Dialect is a funny thing. You don't hear your own accent, not usually, but you can certainly recognize it in others. What you're hearing is absences, or what the other person isn't saying.

It's a lot like that with rock bands. The default setting—a guitar or two, a bass, drums—creates a soundscape so familiar the mind treats it as a single unit. When you play around with the default, perhaps by removing a few elements, the mind gets stuck on it just as it does when encountering an unfamiliar dialect.

Stray Owls, a Mebane outfit consisting of guitarists Matt French and Scott Griffiths, is a rock band that speaks with an accent. At times, they function as a plainspoken folk duo with effects and noise washing behind them, reminiscent of freak folk but without the starry-eyed idealism. On other occasions, they crunch along like a blues-rock band that's missing some personnel. Across the ten tracks of A Series of Circles, its debut LP, Stray Owls kick around the liminal space between fuzzy psych-rock and jangly living room folk without raising either flag. The music is familiar and fringe all at once.

Take, for example, the down-tempo closing track, "Red Flags." For two minutes, it sounds like a White Stripes song coming unglued, but not quite collapsing. After a brief noise break, "Red Flags" gathers steam and urgency with French's creepy howl of "I'm the ghost on your laundry list." The trappings are eccentric and noisy, but a core of songcraft and a handful of themes reassert themselves throughout: old houses, the inaccessibility of the past, the austerity of solitude. "We only needed the bare necessities/in that house from the nineteenth century," Griffiths sings in the bucolic, straightforward "Auctioned Off." He continues, "The lake has dried up and our childhood is auctioned off."

When the group's arrangements have ample space to breathe, such as in "Ruin Is Formal," the results simply shine. For the first three minutes, it's a haunted, rural instrumental that builds with menacing, patient percussion. Then Griffiths sings a concise, poignant vignette: an old woman, dying of old age in her farmhouse while her husband is outside, doing chores. He returns to the house to find that she's died, so he tenderly closes her eyes.

What A Series of Circles builds to, ultimately, is the cousin of Greil Marcus's ever-cited concept of "old, weird America." With its balance of acoustic guitars and fuzzed-out feedback, its tales of loss and isolation and woe, and its rhythms of collapse and decay, Stray Owls represent a sort of new, weird America—one born in Mebane.

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