Photo by Sara SangerThe Velvet Teen's front man, Judah Nagler, sometimes sounds so much like Jeff Buckley that you have to stare at him hard, just to make sure dead guys aren't crawling out of the Mississippi to steal our rock bands away from us. But it's okay: young Nagler is very much alive, and his haunting vocals are the only thing about the Velvet Teen that make you think about walking out into the water at midnight. And when he isn't singing, Nagler just mumbles quietly, whispering along until he finally gets excited about something—right now, it's the best use of saxophone in the history of rock & roll.
"How about in 'Why Don't We Make Believe We're in Love Again' by Toto?" he asks. "That song wouldn't have happened without the fucking 'buh-brr brr-brrr . . .'"
He's almost too ready with his human saxophone solo—it's as if he just finished listening to Toto IV a few minutes ago. Maybe his affection for '80s behemoth-rock bands like Toto and Talk Talk explain why the Velvet Teen's new record, Elysium, is as mountainous and majestic as a big ol' power ballad—minus the catchy choruses. Instead, though some elements of the sound just scream FM-pop superhit, Elysium is far more experimental and daring than their previous work—Radiohead with a broken heart. They haven't got any sax solos, either, but if you listen closely, the same wistful themes from that Toto tune—the same desperate attempts to win back the gal who got away—spiral gently through each track, the band's dense instrumentation and layers of electronic elements adding careful balance to Nagler's sweeping, operatic voice.
Elysium was the first big recording project for Nagler and his brother Ephraim, who made the most of their laptops and local sound spaces.
"At an old warehouse that makes vitamins and sounded really nice, we used a brick room to record the drums and bass," Nagler says. "And we used my dad's closet to record vocals. With all the clothes in there to muffle the sound, it was actually the deadest room in the house. And you know, there are all kinds of homophobic jokes you can make from it. We recorded the piano in a chapel in an arts center that's nearby."
The whole project is completely homegrown, right down to the CD design. Bassist Josh Staples handled the artwork, while his wife, Sara Sanger, shot most of the photos, and nobody can remember exactly who came up with the idea to print the liner notes in almost invisible ink—you can only see them when you hold the record at a certain angle to the light, perfect for Nagler's journal-entry lyrics. And if you can make out the words to "Forlorn," a song about an ex-couple meeting again in another space and place, you'll see where it says that "the fine print's meant to blur your eyes (there are things they don't want you to read)."
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And there are some things you don't want to read, anyway. This record tells the story of a grown-up heartbreak, and the invisible ink spares readers the subtle sting. Nagler isn't some emo kid, wearing his heart on the sleeve of a tight-fitting hoodie; he's a guy in his mid-20s, singing his sorrow into a rack of his dad's musty suits. Realizing how sad that image sounds, Nagler tries to lighten the mood. He asks permission to crack a joke.
He's been trying to keep the mood as light as possible these days, but he was definitely going through a bummer of a break-up shortly before the Elysium recording sessions began. And then old friend and drummer Logan Whitehurst was diagnosed with brain cancer. With this in mind, the record's title is chilling: in Greek mythology, the Elysian fields are a place where happy souls are sent after death. Whitehurst is expected to make a full recovery, but he has already decided to part with the Velvet Teen till he's on his feet again. Nagler raves about Whitehurst's essential contributions to the band in the past. Nagler is happy about new drummer Casey Deitz of the Americas. Nagler is excited about future possibilities.
"We're all itching to do something more upbeat," he says. But he doesn't say it in an upbeat way. Urgent, you think. That's how you'll write it down later.