Autoharp is almost a forgotten instrument in America. It's seldom played these days by folkies, much less indie rockers, so when Oakland band Cryptacize opens its debut album, Dig That Treasure, with the muffled sound of an autoharp, you know you're entering another musical dimension. "Stopwatch" features Nedelle Torrisi's affecting vocals that instantly transport you to the realm of gentle heartbreak. Her timeless voice tenderly ensnares, a dulcet tone full of resignation and longing. Guitarist Chris Cohen adds high vocal harmonies and minimal electric guitar — a few measured strums and a handful of muted bass notes — while drummer-percussionist Michael Carreira taps out the sound of a ticking clock on claves to add to the tune's enigmatic aura. Lyrically, the song lives up to the band's name with a poetic, slightly ambiguous message of lost love and dislocation. Not at all your typical love song.
Chris Cohen, a guitarist and songwriter with a penchant for pushing musical boundaries, explains: "We consider the lyrics as fiction and want people to experience our music the way we do. Music is really an abstract sensory experience. Lyrics can rein in those feelings and make [a song] about something specific, something more literal. We're not afraid of being literal, but prefer the intangible musical experience."
The rest of the tunes on Dig That Treasure follow in the inexplicable footprints of the album's opening song. "Heaven Is Human" has a catchy, memorable chorus set off by startling musical jolts. Skewed guitar lines, unexpected rhythmic accents, and Torrisi's achingly expressive vocals deliver a philosophical meditation on lost love or perhaps the joy of being alone after the end of an unsatisfying relationship. "Cosmic Sing-A-Long" belies its hippie-dippy title with music that moves from Latin-flavored rock to cowboy twang. Torrisi and Cohen harmonize sounding like lovers in a 1930s western musical. "We're more rock than folk, despite the autoharp," Torrisi says. "We try to write moody, dramatic portraits about characters, more musical theater than folk."
The Cryptacize sound is the result of the diverse backgrounds the players bring to the band. Torrisi grew up playing classical violin and listening to musical theater cast albums. While finishing her degree in jazz history, she began performing her own songs, both as a solo act and with Thom Moore of the Moore Brothers. She met Cohen when he hired her to play in his band the Curtains.
Cohen is the son of a music professional and an opera singer. He had a fascination for Captain Beefheart when he was younger and studied music at UC Santa Cruz, dropping out to play in bands. He was a member of the skewed indie outfit Deerhoof, which he left to form the Curtains, another band that blended experimental textures and pop. He was living with Torrisi in Crockett, across the street from the C&H Sugar Factory, when Cryptacize was born.
"The scent of burning sugar and chemicals spewed into our apartment and the factory horns shook the building, which was tilted to one side," Torrisi recalls. "We thought we'd grow another leg or something." Instead they wrote music. "We started writing catchy songs, but they started getting weird as we became more insane," Cohen offers. The isolation drove them back to Oakland to start Cryptacize. They hooked up with Michael Carreira, who does solo percussion shows playing a cowbell, after he sent Cohen and Torrisi a link to a YouTube video that showed only his hands and cowbell. "We figured if he could do that kind of stuff in our band, it'd be awesome," Cohen says.
With no bass player, Michael Carreira's New Music background, Torrisi's jones for musical theater, and Cohen's experimental guitar style, you have a recipe that confounds expectations. The music is pop, but the linear songs, odd meters, and unexpected rhythmic accents put Cryptacize in its own inimitable stylistic niche. "I was thinking of the way electric guitar is used in gospel music," Cohen says of the Cryptacize sound. "It's vocal music with guitar accents. We wanted the vocals upfront and didn't want huge-sounding guitars. We wanted to sound like we're in a room with the listener, the singer in front of you, the band fifteen feet back. And we think the autoharp is going to make a comeback."
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