Santa Sprees – Keep Still

Santa Sprees
Keep Still

A band formed, according to legend, after the revelatory purchase of a cheap keyboard and the formation of the basic tunes that primary members Anthony Dolphin and Katherine Marshall managed to pick out and set to tape, Santa Sprees have emerged as one of England’s most prolifically recording quirk-pop units. As the story gets even more convoluted when taking into account the numerous recordings they’ve made with various labels, as well as their setting down roots in Greece and Japan, you can lose track of the fact that Keep Still is actually Santa Sprees’ first official full-length release.

With 24 tracks founded on lilting melodies and Anthony Dolphin’s hushed, creaky voice, Santa Sprees make sleepy-toned lo-fi pop largely without modern parallel. Sure, Dolphin’s voice calls to mind that of Vic Chesnutt very frequently, with similarly unique phrasing dipped in a homespun innocence and thin soulfulness, but the simple, engaging pop songs largely fail to adhere to many of today’s songwriting conventions. And that’s a good thing.

Displaying a knowledge of how to use musical minimalism to their advantage, Santa Sprees nonetheless craft strangely complex songs with a variety of sounds. Restrained strings, xylophone, piano, and Marshall’s backup vocals form the backdrop for “Wasted On You,” a gorgeously defeated lament for someone too good to be “wasted on” their current partner. Similarly, the watery keyboards and folkish harmonica of “Petrified” sounds like Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan crossed with the elegance of Brian Wilson limited to a few synths. The prancing, almost joyous accordion found in “Make Up Dust” turns into a reflective ballad, as many of the songs use slightly off-kilter sounds to ruminate on rather commonplace topics of love and security.

Always willing to change the pace, the waltz-time balladry of “Our Charity Pt. 1,” (a song with two seemingly unrelated sequels in “Our Charity Pt.2” and “Our Charity Pt. 3,”) is soon followed an a capella gospel tribute to Ra the Sun god, which is in turn succeeded by the catchy garage stomp of “Making a Row Man,” which comes dangerously close to lifting the groove out of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” The strangely familiar “Start Again!” chugs along with a marching band beat, another in the seemingly endless stream of tracks that maintains a depth while never relying on a cluttered, or even overly busy, sonic palette.

By the end of the 60-minute audition, Santa Sprees’ delightfully awkward rendering of pop forms equally twee and chamber is overwhelmingly winning. They may not be calling for a complete renovation of the indie landscape, but they do manage to recast familiar strains in creative and distinctive forms. Even when the sounds they find are rather obscured, the sum effect is still very human and inviting due to the tentative vulnerability of the performance. In the end, that honesty may be what most sets Santa Sprees apart from their like-minded contemporaries.