Circulatory System - Mosaics Within Mosaics

The band delivers a surprisingly grounded album of canorous bugbears and exuberances.

Additional Info

8.1

ALBUM: Mosaics Within Mosaics

ARTIST: Circulatory System

2014

Rock

In a significant way, reviewing a Circulatory System album track-by-track seems a bit counterproductive. Like many of their Elephant 6 Recording Company brethren, Circulatory System’s previous output was based on snippets and half-baked flashes of composition that freely flowed in and around one another—the idea of songs in the traditional sense was eschewed, though each piece did contain melody and at least one delectable bite on which to savor. 2009’s Signal Morning, the ensemble’s last offering, provided the canvas to which main thrust mind Will Cullen Hart and co. splattered in bursts their unique (even for Elephant 6) brand of subdued, introspective psych-pop. The main difference with Mosaics is, while there is more than enough of a flowing form to give credence to the title and former way that the band did things, many of the tracks here are able to stand on their own, not bound by the context of the sounds before or after them. Certain songs feel like glassy specters passing through the speakers, but Mosaics is weirdly accessible for a Circulatory System album; it’s as infectious as it is esoteric. As much as it inadvertently pushes away, at times, the album rings as intimately personal for its main songwriter.

Although Mosaics is rife with stop/starts and lyrics that read as explosions of absurdity, there’s an honesty present here that mostly cuts through the usual circus smokescreens that Elephant 6 bands employ. It’s impossible not to think that this may have to do with Hart’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, purportedly responsible for him to brake his output in recent years. It’s been five years since Signal Morning, and the big news in the Elephant 6 camp was the resurfacing of Jeff Mangum and resurrection of Neutral Milk Hotel, but Hart was writing songs all the while (some of these tracks dating back a decade), even despite his illness. It’s great to see the troupe is touring the world with NMH, perhaps filling the Elephant 6 madcap void left by Olivia Tremor Control’s absence since Bill Doss’ death. Some of the lines on Mosaics are grounded in what could seem like a personal narrative for Hart, a first for the band. Hart is an enigmatic man—I had the pleasure of meeting him one time in Pittsburgh during the Elephant 6 surprise tour in 2008—and he played the role of jester/savant perfectly, zanily moving his limbs (perhaps to abate his MS, which was still under wraps then) while he spoke in pseudo-poetry. The Hart on his records is much in line with the Hart I met, constantly turning away while at the same time enamored with sharing. We don’t get many “I” lines on Mosaics, but a pumping heart runs beneath the music, especially at such times as when Hart declares love the reason to continue on “It’s Love”; it’s hard not to check a statement like that with what’s going on in his life. Fans of Circulatory System’s past work will not be alienated by the bits of new candor, as the cacophony of many people making many noises is still at the forefront, and there’s nothing to signify Hart commandeering the ensemble into his singular vehicle.

While it seems there is a way to get through Mosaics with Hart as the guide, it is still not an easy journey. Strong song melodies die before they get a chance to bloom, and, at times, sentiments with high potential feel yanked away, as on “Just In Time To See You All”. The album is too bloated by about three or so tracks (not terrible when you consider it is comprised of thirty-one); it’s much to take in on a single listen. But repeat listens prove rewarding. At the title track—about halfway through the album—the grander picture begins coming into focus. Mosaics definitely feels directionless at this point, but that’s not meant as a sleight. The phrase “Say goodbye,” is repeated with no end in sight—there is still about forty minutes of music left on the record. In that way, the entire album is suspended out of time, in someplace fluid where infinity encompasses sound on all directions. Hart seems aware that, on a very basic level, time is a construct created and measured by humans, but there are ways around it. The album’s freewheeling structure acts as a conduit into a world where existence doesn’t have natural boundaries of birth and death; by just existing as a document of a particular instant, one can reach out into many directions at the same time. Art doesn’t have to be fully formed in order to connect with other people. Hart seems to believe this is achievable if we just forget what we’ve been told for so long. “Open Up Your Lives” provides the deepest look inside, the one time the veil is pulled fully back to see the pulsing heart of its writer. Those feelings, big as they may seem, are all over Mosaics Within Mosaics, and the conjuring, capturing, and relaying of living within these cosmos may be the strongest act of which our flimsy flesh sacks are capable.

“If we open up this world, does it open other windows?”

1. Physical Mirage/Visible Magic
The album begins with vibe familiar to anyone who’s listened to an Elephant 6 band. There’s a waltzing guitar riff and spare percussion hits before Hart enters, with his voice followed by an underwater double: “Perfectly normal day.” Hart’s playing off of the fact that this is not a normal day: it’s a return after a five-year absence. At the same time, it’s a statement of the longevity of the songwriter, the band, and the collective itself. Hart often plays with time and its oceanic beating waves effect. It may be a perfectly normal day for Hart, but time undercuts the normalcy of the occasion because today is the day that Hart hit record again.8.9
2. If You Think About It Now
At nearly three-minutes, it’s one of the longer songs on the record, and it has a lot of the lo-fi sensibilities and know-how of past Circulatory System songs. A deep bass anchors the song to slow galloping drumming. Hart channels Revolver-era Lennon’s sliding voice to get his point across that the importance of any moment comes with its consideration. For then, “All the world stands tall.” Two songs in and the band is firing on all cylinders.8.8
3. No Risk
A shanty tune with a strong melody. The song abruptly stops right in its middle, and Hart’s guitar work climbs the frets as the lyrics descend: “No risk of winding up/ all the way down there.”7.0
4. Just In Time To See You All
This song features delicately panning guitar arpeggios and an airy performance from Hart: “They came from the sky/ just in time/ just in time to see you all.” A psychedelic organ part and marching drums give the song a particularly Sgt. Pepper’s feel. Hart ends the song by humming and galloping into the sunset. Then the track ends; it’s a time it feels like Hart is eschewing making a grand statement in favor of abandoning the present and seeing what’s behind the next door.6.8
5. Neon Light
“Neon Light” explodes in noise from the death of the last song. It’s fuzzy, buried guitars are particularly lo-fi, and sound like 2001’s Circulatory System more so than the other tracks. It’s a zany circus, with affected, pitch-shifted vocals, and warped samples adding to the mania.6.8
6. It's Love
This is a beautiful track. A cello slides with a simple guitar part , and Hart’s wavering dives into a litany of all the things that love is, including, “the reason to continue.” It’s a strong, simple sentiment, but one that is emblematic of what is going on with the whole of Mosaics, in that Hart is curating a slow immersion into something deeply personal and profound for its creator. The vocals are strong here and have hints of Elliott Smith in their whispered cadence. Hart also introduces the concept of time as an enemy, as he’s aware of it’s fleeting capacity, “It’s falling down like water through the sky.”9.0
7. Mosaic #1 & 8. Tiny Planes on Canvas
The first of eight “Mosaics” begins with an intricately finger-picked guitar part. Surprisingly, this “mosaic” isn’t composed of pieces or snippets at all, but is a few sustaining parts that are allowed to grow and breathe over their four minutes. This is a peculiar choice, but a pleasant one, as the guitar melody is strong and a bit reminiscent of six-string stalwarts like John Fahey. As the guitar fades out, a mysterious, cinematic organ drone takes its place, akin to many of Badalamenti’s backdrops to early David Lynch scenes. Voices ooze in and out of the picture, but the serenity of the composition is its centerpiece.

Thick water coats the vocals and renders them nearly indecipherable as Hart muses he “can see the world that no one else can.” Sure, it’s a line that may be best buried for its sly, self-adulation, but there’s truth here, too, because Hart operates on his own frequency, and I believe this song to be an acknowledgement of it, perhaps for the first time. The song reaches for a grand statement, though perhaps ungainly, it’s an instance of Hart reaching out instead of inside.7.4

9. Mosaic #2 & 10. When You're Small
The second “mosaic” is much more fractured than the first. Noise swirls around a pattering organ part, to no real end. But that’s the beauty of a Circulatory System record: there doesn’t have to be an end.

A jangly guitar part (very “Here Comes the Sun”) clashes with pretty despondent lyrics as far as Hart is concerned: “When you’re small/ and you’re so empty/ just an open sky/ shining down on you.” It’s Hart’s undercutting of the concern—the open sky—that is of note. Things may be bad, but there is beauty left to see in the ashes of what has gone away.7.8

11. Do You Know What's Real?
A throwback indie-band like the Red House Painters could have written the music to this track. The drums are clear, the guitar is lithe; it’s only Hart’s vocal that makes it recognizable. He creates some great vocal melodies here against a muted horn section that takes flight. The song is still too dreamy and short for its own good to soar as a bona fide pop song, but it’s another flash of brilliance from the songwriter, sadly let to die before fully taking flight.8.0
12. Over Dinner the Cardinal Spoke
Vocal tricks a la Ween (one deep voice following the main vocal line) make this song a tad too zany when compared to the rest of the album. The melody is pleasant, almost island-esque, and provides a nice showcase for the playfully macabre refrain to dig in: “Lots of things your mother never told you/ now you know the reasons why.” While this song may at first be puzzling, it’s also a deeply original-sounding tune, and makes clear another facet that Hart is able to do so well: strangeness.7.9
13. Aerial View of a Heart (from Above)
Over another snappy mid-paced riff, Hart delivers the cryptic: “Funny how long it’s been for the young rocks on the shore.” And one can’t help but consider the tenure of the band itself. While Circulatory System only has three proper albums, they’ve been an act for nearly fifteen years. A lot of music has come and gone in that time, and the track seems to be poking fun, in the peculiarly Elephant 6 way, over the staying power of a bizarre entity just like CS. The song never truly shifts from that single sentiment, but it’s an utterance on which to truly ponder as we approach the halfway mark of the beast.7.0
14. There is No Time But Now
Marching snares are punctuated by railroad organ notes in a particularly long intro (at least by the get-to-it punch of other songs on the record). The song allows other ideas that have come and gone so quickly to simmer a bit, and the listener is thankful for the moments of repose. The aura around the track is a bit darker than the mostly upbeat other cuts and emboldened when Hart delivers the only lyrics: “Would you ever/ Could you ever know?/ There is no time but now.” It’s a harrowing moment for the record.7.8
15. Puffs of Cotton
A moseying, inebriated wisp of a song begins with tack piano and vaudevillian vocal delivery. It quickly segues into the strangest moment on the album: a chorus of out of synch voices chanting, “This is the age of mud.” Don’t ask me what it means, because I don’t know, but I do know that I put this song on repeat to make sure I heard what I thought I was hearing.6.5
16. The Reasons Before You Knew
Snapped back into the psychedelic pop world and away from the carnival cult, Hart answers the questions we were just asking, saying, “You might never know why.” The violin accompaniment is a welcome addition to the dizzying soundscape, providing just enough anchor to make this answer count.6.9
17. Mosaic #3 & 18. Mosaics Within Mosaics
Sequenced electronics and piano parts over horse-clopping percussion.

“Say goodbye,” croons the songwriter at the start, and we have another Beatles-inspired flash (Compare the back-up melody to Magical Mystery Tour’s “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”). The song could be a nice coda if the album ended there, but we’re only a little halfway through. The acid horns in the song’s second half signal there’s much more mania left.7.4

19. Mosaic #4 & 20. Open Up Your Lives
Creepy radio static and buried organ, like listening to a demented circus from behind an iron grate.

A stark entry, unlike any other song on the record. It’s just Hart’s voice, without effects, and a single guitar part. Hart asks, “If we open up this world/ does it open other windows?”, and it’s a poignant question amidst the noise that surrounds it on the record, but also on its own in the world where we all live.8.2

21. Mosaic #5 & 22. Sounds That You've Never Heard
Ambient noise and a lulling, sleepy harmonium.

The lilting guitar part is a bit out of tune, but it adds atmosphere to the skewed pop ditty. This is probably the closest that the band sounds to Olivia Tremor Control, subdued and awash in horns and synth parts. It’s a gentle song, one with more pop potential than is fleshed from it.7.2

23. Stars and Molecules
An astrophysics broadcast is channeled leading into Hart singing a broken lullaby. He seems to stop and restart the song a few times, scrapping the direction where the song was going, only to begin in the same place, like he can’t get rid of it. The song itself shifts course no less than three times (lullaby, psych-pop, eastern tinged dance number), creating its own mosaic within the mosaic of the album. In track 22, Hart edges toward the meta with the lines: “Does this seem/ like a dream/ that we’re never gonna wake up from?” After so many shifts in tone, genre, and mood, we have to wonder where else there is to be taken.8.2
24. Mosaic #6 & 25. Mosaic #7
Play-skool instruments making a racket.

Circuit bending noise and lo-fi tape loops that give way to stuggling guitars. It’s one of the more fully formed mosaics.

26. Makes No Sense
Hart sings, “What seems to be but it makes no sense.” Truthfully, the song could have been cut with little to no consequence to how the album makes sense.5.5
27. Conclusions
The final stretch. The instruments sound relatively clear on this track—the drums are booming, and Hart’s voice is louder than most elsewhere. He works his way through the ponderings of what it means to be a part of a bigger whole, something he knows a lot about but still has trouble grasping: “We jump to conclusions/ such pitiful conclusions…/The way I see it/ there are so many sides to it/ you better ask yourself/ just what you could have done wrong/ There is just so much to think.” It’s a strong final kick.8.0
28. Mosaic #8 & 29. Bakery Spires
Lucid, twangy guitar that could have been on the last Mac Demarco record.

Hart commands a chaotic march with a dour presence, “Why are we here?/ Just a futile attempt at making a trap.” It’s a sad dénouement to the album, but it’s not as if the sentiment comes from no where. Elsewhere on Mosaics, Hart succumbs to the weight of existence as it is, but never so clearly as on this track. It ends, appropriately, with field recorded noise of the natural world—living creatures just being, unquestioning.7.5

30. Night Falls
“When night falls/ will we even notice what it was in the morning?”7.8
31. Elastic Empire Coronation
The album’s last track may be it’s most pop oriented melody, orbiting a completely major scale. Hart’s provides a hypnotic earworm: “If you don’t believe us/ we can slip on down.” The last minute of the song literally fades into nothingness from first being submerged under water. It’s a whimper of a last statement, but the lack of closure leaves the door open for the album to be restarted, for a new trove of hidden passages within these thirty-one tracks to be discovered. Mosaics is about possibility.7.3
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.

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