Season’s change: Estrangers grow up on first full-length

by Ryan Snyder

When Estrangers released the beach-y, four-song fever dream Sunmelt last April, it was a statement that songwriter Philip Pledger’s pet sunshine-pop project was growing in a more mature, purposefully psychedelic from the band’s post-juvenile 2011 debut, Black Ballroom. It was verdant with noise and sincerity, a release whose preoccupation with optimism, ambiance and mood forgave its ramshackle production values. It was the release that was going to overcome the Love Language comparisons that have dogged the band since Day 1 and establish Estrangers as an act that’s invested in honing its craft — a guarantee on which too many of its fellow Winston-Salem bands have failed to make good, to their detriment. It wasn’t supposed to portend the end of the band, but it almost did.

A shaky set at Phuzz Phest 2012 would mark both the release of Sunmelt and attrition essentially ending Estrangers as it was known at the time. Keyboardist Jodi Burns would leave for a month-long opera job in New Jersey, only to return to focus on her own band, Judy Barnes. Bassist Trevor Reece would move to Durham to focus on gilding his surf-rock band Drag Sounds, and though Nathan Bedsole would step in to take over bass soon after, drummer Pat Sheehan would depart immediately after the band’s Hopscotch set later that fall after demoing had already begun for the band’s first full-length record.

“I think I was really frustrated at [Phuzz Phest] because at that moment, were playing with Night Dogs, which I was really stoked about and we wanted to play a good show,” Pledger said. “We tried to do a Television cover that didn’t go well, and tried to play two other new songs that didn’t come off very well. At that point, I was just really frustrated.”

Pledger nonetheless continued writing and demoing through January 2013 with Bedsole, guitarist Mike Wallace and keyboardist David Todd Murray under the assumption that there might not be another album. But as Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, uncertainty is the refuge of hope. Pledger’s dutiful undertaking of making an authentic pop record would begin in earnest when he recruited former Bayonets bandmate Chad Newsome to play drums — with tambourine and timbale provided by eventual full-time drummer Drew Braden — during a marathon four-day session at el Guapo Recordings with producer Ryan Pritts.

Overcoming the task of keeping his band together did not simply absolve Pledger of actually creating his “adult” record, however. Thirteen-hour days spent tracking and slamming down shrimp tacos al ajillo from las Estrellas resulted in Season of 1000 Colors, the pristine pop record that Pledger envisioned after the gleefully shaggy Sunmelt. It’s not merely Estrangers’ most refined release, a descendent of Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ The Young Ones and spiritually linked to Tennis’s Young & Old, it’s the record where he learns to be a front man — not the role player he was in the Bayonets, not the guy whose job it was to merely sing in key on Black Ballroom and not the voice lost beneath an inundation of fuzz on Sunmelt.

“At that point after Black Ballroom, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a vocalist,” said Pledger. “I was just writing songs on the guitar, and whatever key it was written in was the one I had to hit.”

A handful of songs from Sunmelt found a new home here in tidier digs (“Sunmelt”) or new sonic environs altogether (“AM Radio Summer Beach Hit #3” was reborn as “Monarchs”), but Pledger’s vocal versatility on Season of 1000 Colors is owed in large part to the palette with which the rest of Estrangers provides him. Murray employs almost a full key range on the lilting “Dayzd”, yet it remains expansive and colorful, the latter being an important theme in not just the title, but the album itself. “We could have it if we wanted to/ Live our days out in the summer hue,” Pledger sings against one of the album’s warmest backdrops.

The album explores a persistent dichotomy between warm and cold — it was recorded during an unseasonably warm winter for a summer release — whose balance subtly shifts over the course of the record. The instrumental opener “El Paradiso” belies its titular implications when sleighbells are the first sound heard, set against Pledger and Wallace’s starry-eyed guitar missives. The instrumentals play an important role in that shift, with “Moonraker” exuding a coolness uncommon to Estrangers’ music until now and culminating in “Las Puertas,” pulled from the same track that gave birth to “El Paradiso” but slowed down. It’s a return to the slow, transcendental feedback guitar of past releases psychedelic, but also indicative of where Estrangers may be going in the future as it fades out inconclusively.

“Pop music is the hardest kind of music to write. So much pop music has existed that to truly rise above the standard you have to have your craft honed in,” Pledger said. “My goal with Season of 1000 Colors was to write the best pop album I can write. At this stage of my life at 25, that’s the best I can write. We’ll always be writing pop songs in a general sense, but this is as far down that road as we can go. Now that we’ve gotten this record out of our system, we can do all kind of things.”

Estrangers will release Season of 1000 Colors at the Garage on Friday with the Human Eyes and Body Games in support.