Something Wicked

The Evangelicals get haunted on their sophomore release

Oklahoma is a strange state. Musically, it's where country mainstays like Vince Gill and Toby Keith churn out traditional sounds, while bands like the kaleidoscopically skewed (and now defunct) Chainsaw Kittens and the twisted, sun-soaked Flaming Lips show off the state's quirkier side. Digging deeper, Oklahoma also has its fair share of troubled characters and moments: doomed poet John Berryman, the domestic terrorism of the Oklahoma City bombing and the religious deviancy of Yahweh ben Yahweh.

Not surprisingly, from Oklahoma's wellspring of the weird, prolific, tragic, brilliant and unsettling, we get the Evangelicals, a band whose similarities to a group like the Flaming Lips may muddle its standing as a true musical purveyor of its state's schizophrenic, ongoing (and rather fascinating) horror show.

The Evangelicals, from Norman, are the brainchild of singer/guitarist Josh Jones. In fact, Jones was essentially forced to create the group's 2006 debut, So Gone, as a solo release. Earlier this year, Jones joked with the New York Press about his lack of bandmates during the debut's recording, stating, "I took the Field of Dreams method of making a record ... 'If you build it, they will come.'"

And come they did. Since the Evangelicals' debut--which received well-deserved rave reviews for its syrupy and jittery mixture of pop, psychedelica and rock--Jones was able to recruit drummer Austin Stephens and bassist/keyboardist Kyle Davis into the fold. (The group has added guitarist Todd Jackson for touring.) Released in January, the trio's sophomore release, The Evening Descends (Dead Oceans), is a remarkable, nightmarish album that melds elements of the aforementioned fellow Oklahomans with what sounds like Phil Spector conducting Bernard Herrmann for a lost Hitchcock grindhouse film.

Many critics found the Evangelicals' debut to be excitable and dizzying in its quirks and turns, but the album seems downright even-tempered when compared with The Evening Descends. The addition of Stephens and Davis to the recording process has done wonders for Jones, who is free to let his musical demons run wild. Although all the indie hallmarks can be heard--Of Montreal in some of the funkier breakdowns, Arcade Fire during moments of balanced explosiveness, Grandaddy synths, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah vocals in Jones' high-pitched warble--The Evening Descends feels anachronistic. In interviews, Jones has namedropped Brian May, David Gilmour and the Velvet Underground, all touchstones whose influences haunt the album.

The album's opening, title track is a slow-burn doo-wop number that sports an offbeat, sputtering and twinkling synth interlude before returning to its cooing origins. Meanwhile, "Midnight Vignette" follows directly with its chiming, ringing Brit-pop pedigree offset by some Mayesque guitar howls. But surely the album's high-water mark is the funhouse "Skeleton Man." In his interview with the New York Press, Jones admitted the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" was an influence on the track, but aside from the way both songs employ a pressing buildup--in the case of "Skeleton Man," things progress from a lulling bassline introduction into a Technicolor, explosive and washed-out climax--the parallels are slight. Nonetheless, the track is as visceral and driving as anything released in recent memory. It also employs the classic (but never boring) gimmick of balancing rollicking sounds with lyrical dourness; the shimmering tune almost masks its trenchant chorus ("When someone loves you very much, you're fucked") amid a maelstrom of guitar, bass, drums and generous helpings of distortion. This duality, between the sour and the sweet, is what makes The Evening Descends such a compelling listen.

Deftly balancing equal parts funk, psychedelica, pop, soul and rock, it is easy to overlook the key ingredient of the Evangelicals' success: camp. Thematically--if not narratively--the album is bound together by Jones' fascination with darker elements like insanity, evil, suicide and drugs. Yet, rather than being maudlin or hoping to vindicate the darker elements of life through their music (like Arcade Fire), the Evangelicals fully embrace the camp qualities of these elements: Characters haunt the fictitious Bellawood mental institute; some are zombies; and horror film elements--both musical and lyrical--are gleefully infused throughout the record. Managing to straddle the line between camp and musical clarity, the album and its fractured concepts come together beautifully by culminating in the ethereal closer "Bloodstream," whose coda settles into a few stray harp sweeps, chirping crickets and an ominous rising orchestral swell. In other words, it's the best damn aural horror flick Oklahoma ever made.