Growing up, changing and moving on always involves a certain degree of tension. And for cuddlecore trio The Crystal Furs, a move from the more conservative surroundings of Forth Worth, Texas, to the Pacific Northwest’s alt. capital, Portland, has seen a shift in more than just surroundings. The move led to a change in bassist – Rowan, who has also produced their latest album Beautiful and True. But, for keyboardist Kara and her spouse Steph, it meant the discovery of a new identity, mentally, emotionally and sonically. That’s not to say that the band, whose previous releases included their self-titled Texas debut in 2016, and last year’s sophomore Psuedosweet, have entirely left their old stomping ground behind. Indeed, Fort Worth – known colloquially as the ‘Panther City’ – stalks many of the songs herein.
In many respects, the tracks on Beautiful And True fit largely into the two halves of its title, with roughly half sitting in the observational (and therefore ‘true’ category) and the others odes to the beauty of others, and life itself. That the former are often melancholy, whilst the latter are brimming with optimism, probably tells you where band’s emotions are at. Throughout, the album shimmers with its jangly guitar and sweeping organ, as well as Steph Buchanan’s consummate indie-pop vocal delivery (along with occasional harmonies). While ‘Comeback Girls’ opens things with a twinkling ballad, ‘Expo ’67’ is arguably the LP’s standout in this respect, with Green-era REM meeting The Breeders at the Montreal World Fair of the title, as its narrator finds that their retro-future dreams have faded from fantasy to grey concrete reality.
‘Pretty Mind’ picks up the ’60s style emotional pop, as an ode to the musical escapes of the small-town outsider. ‘Panther City Pariah’, meanwhile, is, thematically, the grown-up sister song to ‘Pretty Mind’ – finding its outcast narrator finding pride in “finish[ing] last” and “fail[ing] in public” out on the street. Musically, its tight guitar chords and organ melodies give it a pleasingly deconstructed blend of upbeat chamber pop and twee indie-disco. This gradual sonic opening up is continued by ‘Too Kind to be Cruel’, which features the album’s first guitar solo and lyrically inverts the old cliche’s message in an attempt to appeal to a friend’s good side, despite negative pressure from others and the wider world.
Appropriately, the album’s middle point encapsulates the themes at its core. ‘Like You’ has vintage doo-wop rhythms and guitars, mirroring the melancholy subjects of the girl groups from the era, with its lyrical take on the envy of the outsider, observing those considered both “beautiful and true”. ‘Burn Us Down’, meanwhile, is thematically and musically the LP’s true outlier: a bass-heavy garage rocker with stabs of organ. With this in mind, it’s hard to avoid the obvious interpretation that the sound is driven by the anger redolent in its lyrics: “your pocketbook against my personhood” presumably relating to the difficulty of accessing healthcare in the USA, while “you wanna cure me / you wanna fix me…our colours bleed across the land” sounds like a strong reference to the battleground of LGBTQ+ rights in the country.
‘Hey Maxine’ is a handclap-backed plea to someone unfairly treated; ‘Artoria’ is an upbeat lilt with a big chorus, an ode to the famous ‘tattooed lady’ carnival attraction Artoria Gibbons – whose ink now makes her seem less of a ‘freak’ and more of a forerunner; ‘Drag You Away’ is a C86-hued reflection on the horror nightmare of ‘podunk’ towns, replete with a doomy bass breakdown, although whether the zombies of its lyrics are literal or metaphorical is up to the listener to decide.
Penultimate track ‘The Robber Barons of Lombard Street’ is a tale of revenge against gentrification and the co-opting of the rainbow flag by capitalism, with arguably the album’s darkest imagery of “pistol loads” and a “building swallowed by flames” as “two femmes” take revenge. However, it’s a contrast when it comes to album closer ‘Second Time Around’ – a celebratory hymn to second chances – and the album’s other standout, with its simple instruction to those listening: “Join a band and play guitar”, and make the most of being young, all over again.
To craft one album of three minute pop gems is impressive. To release two in a little over a year borders on compulsive creativity. And to suffer no let up in quality across the course of that time demonstrates that, as my grandmother was found of saying: a change is as good as a rest. It’s something of a well-worn expression, that adult life is about ‘finding oneself’, but it certainly seems for the Buchanans, and their band, that all of the changes in their life have enabled them to do just that. And what they’ve found are winning alt. indie-pop purveyors in the mould of Helen Love. Beautiful And True is an album whose title could not be clearer: it is what it says it is.
Listen to Beautiful And True on Bandcamp now: