Phoenix, Arizona seems to both a fair amount of reclusive musical geniuses that create artful albums that may miss popular appeal but become the things other musicians and music critics dream of. Stephen Steinbrink (French Quarter), Owen Evans (ROAR), Tyler Broderick (Diners) come to mind and many more, but recently Todd Hoover (The Invisible Teal) can’t be denied in that regard. This is especially true after the release of last year’s “Debts and Quandaries.”
There is a hint of the carnivalesque to this album and it makes me think of other one-off, genre-bending, slightly psychedelic efforts like Tally Hall’s Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum or The Dukes of Stratosphear’s Psonic Psunspot or any number of random albums lining my shelves that get a listen at least once or twice a year no matter how many years I’ve moved away from their release. Todd Hoover’s voice is an acquired taste, but if you enjoy Andy Partridge of XTC or any number of less traditional frontmen, once you acquire it you become fascinated by it and then you just want more of it.
It’s not Hoover’s vocal talents that make this the masterpiece it is, though – it’s literally the orchestrated architecture of the album and the songs themselves. The opener of “Freedom C.E.” lays out the madness that awaits ahead perfectly. The more stunning aspect is that with a few exceptions of friends and studio guns providing strings, flute and drums, nearly everything is the Teal himself, resplendent in his transparent plumage. The first time I heard the album I bought Invisible Teal’s entire catalog to simply show my appreciation for how magnificent this record was and still is over a year later.
“One Hundred Rings” maintains the pace and musical circus aspect, which helps you realize the opener is not a one-off bit of genius. The layers (man, the layers) of sound, mixed by Jalipaz at Audioconfusion provide something different on each listen and also each method of listening --speakers present a far different time from headphones. The near cabaret/torch song vibe of “Heaven is a Library” becomes quite creepy upon paying attention to the nightmarish lyrics and the contrast becomes a bit harrowing; it’s quite visual and you can see a video for it happening without much effort. A piano player with a single spotlight otherwise shrouded in darkness plays for an empty red velvet auditorium as he reveals the nature of his dreams.
With a sudden switch in tempo through a drum machine beat, we move seamlessly into the hypnotic “Alert/Alive,” a stark, almost teutonic tune which comes off a bit like the arty side of Krautrock – relying on complicated time and unconventional arrangements. And yet, it makes absolute complete sense somehow. It’s brilliant, and at this point in the album you realize you’re four songs deep into something incredibly special. “Let your freak flag fly” indeed --no worries that The Invisible Teal will absolutely do that for the rest of this sonic smorgasbord.
“Willy Siegel” opens with pounding drums courtesy of Jason Wiedman reminiscent of both Phil Spector and Bauhaus at once. The desperate, beautiful tale of an awkward, misunderstood artist who wants to be something he’s not. Oddly though, the painting the protagonist paints of his existence sounds like a highlight reel from any artist’s life, and this perhaps underscores the notion that his life isn’t all that bad. His desire to be someone else is misplaced because as he seems to discover, in the end, the best way to be is to be himself.
The advanced single for the album was “OMG,” and it was the song that made me realize the approaching album was going to be amazing. It’s the centerpiece for the album and it’s an astute, wry commentary on modern society and the superficiality of most of our interactions. I find something new to love with this song every time I spin it and I’m probably approaching a hundred listens – not just lyrically, but within the densely complex arrangement backing the vocal poetry. It’s a song to put on repeat and get lost in for an afternoon (I mean, that’s something I’d do anyway).
“Wayward/Awkward” is Side Two’s answer to “Alert/Alive,” warmer and sweeter in every way with a story that speaks more to the strange and disenchanted in the suburbs more than the urban freaks flying their flags in the previous tune. I could be wrong, but it’s just how it feels. The two songs are weird siblings that seem as different as they do similar. It’s a brilliant tune filled with the Teal’s endlessly referential postmodern poetry which feeds itself from line to line in Ouroboric splendor. It’s a touching tune and feels a bit confessional, but there’s a hint of all of that in every tune found here.
There’s almost a comical Harry Nilsson / Randy Newman vibe to “Corpse,” and while it’s a humorous look at a dead relationship and a self-deprecating view of heartbreak, it’s presented with tongue in cheek and more than a wink. It’s a classic music hall approach that Tom Lehrer would approve of, including the dizzying merry-go-round psychedelic bridge smack dab in the middle. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking, and all too familiar at once --when tragedy becomes laughable, it’s very often because it’s time to move on. “Line of Dots” opens as a peculiar tune about discovering one’s self-worth, and turns into a song which seems to be an affront to the imposition brought on by depression, tragedy, and the horrors of the world. Sometimes forgiving yourself past misery as necessity is a key to moving forward.
The epic of the album is “Crooked Doves’ Eyes :: Bangarang!” and it’s where the ongoing circus of “Debt and Quandaries” meets its prog rock peak – if nothing else for the keyboard solo. It’s also one of the most passionate deliveries found here and you can feel the visceral passion backing Hoover’s vocals on the “sordid past life” choruses, truly providing some of the finest moments of the album (emotionally speaking). Add some The Beatles-esque flair to the bridge (“Bangarang!”) and you’ve got a blazing slow-burner that will soon be one of your favorite songs. It’s gigantic and flawless, moving you with it to the very end.
“We Vessels” almost seems like a pop song coda after the breadth and depth of “Crooked Doves’ Eyes …” It’s also one of the most straightforward songs found here, with an easy-to-follow structure, lush strings, and – well – a whole lot of pop appeal. It’s seems a bit out of place here at the end; by looking at it all from above, it makes perfect sense, just like every other stroke of genius found here. This tune is easily the Teal’s closest approach to XTC at their best and it sends the album off on an effervescent dream, just as it should be. Brilliant from beginning to end, and maddening, musical genius through and through.
Revisiting this album a year later, it’s easy to hear why “Debt and Quandaries” was one of my favorite albums of 2018, not just from Phoenix, but from anywhere in the world. Now where’s the vinyl pressing for this masterpiece?