“What’s the use in heirlooms if they only gather dust?” Philip Pledger, the singer and songwriter for the Winston-Salem band Estrangers, asks on “The Champ,” off of Gilded Palms, the group’s second full-length record, which comes out Sept. 29. Estrangers play dreamy psychedelic pop drenched in retro organ sounds and bright, reverby guitars. That question about heirlooms could relate to the music of the past. Estrangers sound like a band engaged in the process of dusting off some old artifacts and putting them to good use in the moment.
Psychedelic pop sometimes evokes idealized visions of sunny California and stretches of blissful, almost dizzy, chilled-out ease. However, Pledger is a very busy man, a slightly type-A character multi-tasking in 21st century America, making kaleidoscopic music with swirling patterns and touches of ‘60s nostalgia.
Pledger works full-time as a graphic designer, and also runs Phuzz Records, the label releasing Estrangers’ album as well as music from other artists. Pledger, 30, was the guy who helped put together the impressive Phuzz Phest, which ran for five years in a row in downtown Winston-Salem, bringing acts from around the state, the country and the world to play over a packed weekend of shows. Pledger also books events at The Garage and elsewhere under the banner of Phuzz Records. Pledger is also involved, along with local and regional sponsors, in some of the logistics behind the upcoming Pine State Holiday festival, a one-day event taking place at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem on Saturday, Oct. 14, with a mix of national and local acts on two stages as well as food trucks, yoga classes and workshops. Pledger said over the phone that part of the idea behind the festival is about “just encouraging people to lose themselves a little bit.”
The music of Estrangers contains a similar invitation to get pleasantly lost. The new album was recorded mostly at the Fidelitorium studio in Kernersville, vocal tracks were added at a home studio in Winston-Salem. There are a lot of ways to get lost listening to a recording. The process of assembling a record, with multiple guitar tracks, amp settings, textures, different effects on vocals, potential keyboard flourishes, panning options and other studio touches, can create its own thicket of possibilities for bands and producers to navigate putting the finishing touches on a project. Pledger said that he spent a long time — possibly exasperating his bandmates — trying to select the right combination of variables. “I’m sure I drove my bandmates slightly insane during the process,” he said. “But I’m happy to finally take my hands off the wheel.”
Listen to a track like “Green Stars” for a sense of how the sonic setting of a song can create its own trail of breadcrumbs for a listener. One can understand how Pledger and his collaborators got pulled in by the possibilities. There’s an insistent fuzzed-out riff, a crude pounding beat with maracas and big tom sounds, and a washes of atmospheric keyboards — searchlight signals in the fog — before Pledger’s vocals explode onto the foreground, and then, towards the end of the song, the whole mix sounds as if it gets submerged in wads of cotton for a few moments. It’s nicely weird.
“We wanted to make an interesting record,” Pledger said. “It is pop music. It’s pop rock. It has more production going on than a garage-rock band.”
A song like “Dahlia,” which is a lovely little under-one-minute Mellotron-soaked interlude with acoustic guitar, can spur comparisons to early Pink Floyd. While “Eastern Flower” is a bit more driving, with something close to a surf-rock vibe.
There are moments where Estrangers can summon the sweet paisley tumble of ‘60s bands like the Zombies, Moby Grape or the Left Banke. The beefed-up bottom end sometimes brings to mind flashes of the trippy alt-rock of U2’s 1991 record Achtung Baby. Connections to more recent neo-psychedelic acts such as the Coral, the short-lived but excellent All-Night Radio and Ariel Pink are evoked as well.
One can get a little chin-stroke-y in contemplating what it means to make psychedelic music in 2017. Is it a 50-year return of the Summer of Love? Are there similar forces of cultural upheaval now driving people to seek a kind of hazy cheer? Is it that the country’s politically going to hell again? Are new recreational drugs blowing people’s minds? Or is it just a matter of taste?
“I like all kinds of music,” Pledger said. “But there’s definitely something about ‘60s and ‘70s rock that I think was a pretty special moment in time, especially in contrast to music culture now, which is in such a weird spot.”
Pledger said the band “isn’t super democratic,” in that he writes the songs and sort of has much of the final say about how the tunes get arranged and conceived. Still, the other members shape the sound quite a bit. Keyboardist David-Todd Murray also mixed the record. Drummer Drew Braden engineered the recording of the vocals and other added tracks. Guitarist Thomas Dalholt and bassist Joshua Ling contribute with backing that’s both unobtrusive and sturdy.
Lyrically, Pledger said he was going for a kind of arid, sun-baked atmosphere, thinking of the songs as something closer to short stories than first-person journal entries.
“I try to be visual and visceral,” he said. “Really a lot of the songs are basically fiction, crafting totally fake narratives, almost like fantasy. I wanted it more to be almost like a mood piece. Some of the songs take place in the desert, at least in my mind’s eye.”
Estrangers release Gilded Palms on Sept. 29 on Phuzz Records.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.