Celebration’s dreamy ‘Walk On,’ a track from its new “Albumin” (Bella Union), opens with a high-hat shake and bass line combo that recalls girl-group pop. “Walk, you better walk on,” Katrina Ford sings, “find your way home, I know you’re lost.” A keyboard fill comes in behind her, and by this time, the finger-snapping 1960s R&B vibe is unmistakable. Ford compliments that with “Oh, girl, go dry your eyes/ don’t let him see you cry,” before the song explodes into a cheery sunburst. This Celebration admittedly sounds worlds away from the band that led off its 2005 self-titled debut album with ‘War,’ a propulsive jolt of martial drums, organ stabs, and Ford’s confrontational voice ripping through the mettle like ammunition rounds.
“Albumin” is the band’s first in four years and its debut for Bella Union, the label practically curated by former Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde. In the years since 2010’s “Electric Tarot: Hello Paradise,” Celebration’s core trio of vocalist Ford, multi-instrumentalist Sean Antanaitis, and drummer David Bergander, expanded to include Tony Drummond (keyboards/percussion/backing vocals) and Walker Teret (bass/guitar), and this quintet coalesced into a tight, exploratory unit. “Albumin” is organically expansive, nimble, and adventurous, and the album continues the sumptuous singing Ford displayed on “Hello Paradise.”
“Mature” is the operative word typically used to describe the evolution of a group like this, but “mature” is the rock-writer way of saying “boring.” Like having to watch what you eat and quitting smoking, “maturity” is just another reminder of life’s consequences trumping youth’s fearlessness. And it’d be too convenient to slap the mature sticker on “Albumin,” especially if your ears have paid attention to the switchblade sounds Antanaitis and Ford have hammered out in their two-decades-plus career together: first with JAKS, one of those jugular-gouging 1990s bands that wed jerking time signatures to darting guitars and real-horror-show venom, and after that, with the feral Love Life, the band they started when they moved to Baltimore in 1999.
Celebration’s first two albums expanded the Love Life blackest-ever-black sound palette into an sunnier organ-driven trio, but the sound was still sometimes brittle, Ford’s voice still fought its way out of a dense mix, and Bergander, who has a gift for slyly sophisticated time keeping, often pounded away furiously, as if fighting an unidentified foe. The group sounded like it was able to catch its breath after leaving 4AD following the release and touring behind 2007’s “The Modern Tribe.” Left to its own devices Celebration nurtured “Electric Tarot: Hello Paradise,” an album that bucolically welcomed stylistic experimentation, psychedelic textural shifts, and a shambolic optimism.
“Electric Tarot: Hello Paradise” didn’t house the narcotic idealism of oblivious dreamers; it felt more like a hard-earned survival strategy to focus on the things that matter. Its songs showcased Ford allowing her muscular voice to reveal hints of its vulnerable beauty while the band displayed a confidence to shift stylistic gears. ‘I Will Not Fall’ is little more than a shimmering wash of guitar, electronics, and Bergander’s sculptural percussion, while ‘Open Your Heart’ becomes a lullaby painted by Antanaitis’ haunting organ notes.
“Albumin” is the next phase of that Celebration, a full-fledged rock band taking chances with its sound and reveling in that risk. The band subtly changes its skin song to song over the album’s 10 tracks, molting from the woozy opener ‘Razor’s Edge’ to the ambient pop of ‘Tomorrow’s Here Today’, to the orchestral rock of ‘7’Sensei,’ to the comforting embrace of closer ‘Don’t Stop Dreaming.’ It’s all over the place, but it’s an immersion in sprawl delivered with all-in sincerity that rewards repeat listenings.
It is a patience tester: “Albumin” isn’t going to grab the eardrums immediately because it’s not desperate to please, sonically or lyrically. Just past the album’s midpoint ‘I Got Sol’ gets started with an organ line and gnarled guitar buzz, the sort of jazzy cocktail that might get happy hour going at some 1970s airport hotel bar. “Born into life,” Ford sings, clearly, and then smears vocally smears the next part into the visceral fragments that sound like “taken this far alone/ no chance coincidence.” The song becomes a bluesy Southern rocker for the first two minutes, Ford vamping through lyrics as emotive sound colors: “come and go, when dust remains, remains”—at which the song switches gears into an rumbling and Ford erupts, “But I’ve got a lot of living to do.”
Over the song’s entire seven minutes, both music and lyrics repeat this cycle of destruction and rebirth, the band playing variations on the song’s groove motif, and concludes in a surge of distorted unison that’s the closest the band comes to the noisy wallops of its past. That sonic oblivion is followed by ‘Solstice Rite,’ a song that feels like a hymn rejoicing celestial descent, and the more you listen the more you detect a notion of time’s flat circle running through the entire album. The future folds into the present in ‘Tomorrow’s Here Today.’ In ‘Chariot’ Ford sings about transformative journey across the river Styx, and the low-end buzz that ends closing number ‘Don’t Stop Dreaming’ echoes the engine-revving surge that announces album opener ‘Razor’s Edge.’ Celebration’s evocation of the eternal return sounds like a way to deal with the eternal shitstorm called the present.
Right before the go-dry-your-eyes line in ‘Walk On,’ Ford sings, “No, no matter what it did to you, life will shine right through you,” stretching that final “you” into a soaring coo. And over the next three minutes Ford takes this pop song into the meditative. The lyrics include an invitation to “go shed your past,” to “shake your blues and shock,” and the chorus is an imperative “you better walk on.” The song isn’t a cheeky kiss-off to a bad relationship; the girl-group nods are deceptive. Instead, the song’s an insistent reminder that time’s gonna march on whether you’re in the game or not, so you might as well figure out a way get involved with life while you can.
Keeping on despite the fact that it might not get better ain’t an easy sell, and ‘Walk On’ dares to inspire you to do just that with a gorgeous well of church-rocking, gospel-tinged ecstasy. That isn’t an instantly gleaned pop sentiment that’s going to land Celebration anywhere near the charts, nor is the song’s sincere joy going to gel completely with right now’s fractured indieground, no matter how much of that music, from punk to hip-hop, is indignantly suspicious of 21st-century life so far. But as a reminder that it’s possible to build temporary monuments to bliss despite life not getting any easier, that forging on doesn’t always have to mean fizzing out, its three and a half minutes more than hits the mark. ν
Celebration’s “Albumin” is out on Bella Union now. They play the Ottobar on Sept. 27 with Ami Dang and Quitter.