Evangelicals – The Evening Descends

Evangelicals – The Evening Descends
Dead Oceans; 3 ½ Stars

The Evening Descends opens with all of the drama of a Max Fischer play.  Guitars chime like harps, a few scene-setting sounds echo about, and one can mentally see the cheap curtain being raised on a still-drying set.  But unlike the Rushmore character (and perhaps like the band’s religious namesake as well), Evangelicals’ medium does not take a back seat to its message.  Instead, the cheap production – and believe me, there are a number of times when you can practically see the light cans in the back of the school cafeteria here – works closely with stoned-again search for meaning and God that lead singer Josh Jones guides his listeners through.
The problem is, I can’t decide if Evangelicals are overachieving or underachieving.  At times, the clipped and fading post-production tricks seem legitimately beautiful, as in the downy guitars of “Snowflakes,” but the wailing sirens and mini-skits that begin “Party Crashin” seem like shlock for shlock’s sake.  Sometimes, of course, the two coalesce, as in the gleefully dramatic “Bellawood,” whose horror-movie Theremins wail and moan along with Jones when he shouts, “Strange things keep happening inside my head!”
The group manages to channel 70’s television soul, old sound effects records, contemporary hardcore, and the Flaming Lips, not to mention the Rocky Horror vibe that saturates nearly every track.  While the sound is (somehow) a bit tighter and better controlled than 2006’s So Gone, The Evening Descends seems like a minor step backward; the group’s aesthetic has begun to congeal, however slightly, but it too often relies on slapstick instead of letting the music do the talking.  It’s a dark playfulness that is at times unnerving and lacks the stapled-together soulfulness that made parts of So Gone special.
Which isn’t to say that this is a bad record, by any means.  Evangelicals are far closer to the right side of the line between hokieness and authenticity than fellow Okies the Flaming Lips were by their second record, if for no other reason than because the Lips provided the blueprint.  And really, Evening feels like a cheaper version of At War With the Mystics, the Lips’ 2006 space rocker.  The difference, though, is that Evangelicals, perhaps by nature of their limited budget (not to mention fame), feel much more grounded in reality.  Wayne Coyne may be singing about what would happen if you had all of God’s power, but Josh Jones sounds convinced when he screams through a wall of distorted vocals, “When someone loves you very much, you’re fucked!” in the Broken Social Scene-y “Skeleton Man.”   It’s the album’s most winning moment, following Jones’ titular character’s attempts to fill a chest “left empty by the heart’s affairs.”  He may be screaming in fear, but he also recognizes that he’s no longer a lifeless stick collection when he sings, “Hands and knees knelt down and scraped skin replaced bone.”  In other words, as frightening as it may be to be known by something bigger than yourself, it sure as hell beats the alternative.  And yeah, id may have taken Jones a bit of maudlin drama to get there, but in this day and age, shock and awe sometimes feels like the only authenticity we have left.
All told, Evening is an at-times charming picture of where we seem to live every day.  Jones, bassist Kyle Davis, and drummer Austin Stephens have lovingly set their scene, trimming it with thrift store curtains just threadbare enough to let in a little light.

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