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First Listen: Circulatory System, 'Mosaics Within Mosaics'

NPR icon by Doug Mosurock
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Stacey-Marie Piotrowski

Pastiche and whimsy are, by definition, a technique, and a state of mind. But moreover, these two concepts have indelibly tipped the playing field of indie rock downhill into the fanciful dimension beneath that oil-stained rainbow in its parking lot. But despite the deluge of artists that espouse a one-dimensional, "everything is OK" emptiness to their craft, there are still some out there who've so completely mastered these concepts as to have sublimated them entirely into their art, and harnessed their peculiar, all-encompassing feel-good powers into something a few shades darker, and several steps more blended, than much of what came before.

Musician/producer Will Cullen Hart all but singlehandedly stitched these notions into the scene. On his third album as Circulatory System, Mosaics Within Mosaics, due out Jun. 24 on Cloud Recordings, Hart and his crew touch upon dreamlife and waking fears in a carefully constructed, 31-song cycle that flows effortlessly from one end to another. As a charter member of the Elephant 6 collective, a diaphanous force which blew out of the American Southeast in the 1990s like a child might release a dandelion's seeds with their breath, Hart's music with The Olivia Tremor Control, alongside that of the loose aggregate of friends who populated the E6 nation-state (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal) would have succeeded in painting part of the dude ranch of indie rock's establishment in lilac hues, and swarmed them with paisleys.

OTC's music in particular, a five-headed creature fond of overstuffed conceptual soundtracks to imaginary films, begat a line of endless tinkering and collage work with the source material that effectively created two albums out of one. When their decade ended, Hart moved forward with Circulatory System, a means of lighting the fuse beneath the circus tent he helped to moor, revealing it to be filled with slow-motion fireworks. Further explorations of the music on that release revealed the same sort of kaleidoscopic re-envisionings of his initial work as Olivia's Black Foliage did to its predecessor, Dusk At Cubist Castle.

The intervening years between Circulatory System's 2001 debut and now have been pockmarked with a busy and difficult road for Hart, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis not long after the band began. His three releases have been staggered carefully over the years, with a second effort, Signal Morning, surfacing in 2009. Like the past efforts, Mosaics Within Mosaics features contributions from most of the Olivia Tremor Control membership, and a healthy roster of Elephant 6 cohorts both core and satellite, not least of whom include NMH's Jeff Mangum and Jeremy Barnes, all of whom contribute a great number of instrumental tracks and tape loops to the proceedings.

What really impresses about Mosaics, though, is the cohesiveness of what most would brand as unmanageable: The ability to contain a sprawling work to a managed whole while recognizing those very qualities as part of what makes the music special. Produced with a careful and conditional hand, the sounds across these songs feel both separate and together, parts of a work that can be appreciated differently on their own than as part of the greater body. The layered feel of these tracks gives Hart the ability to fine-tune and even play down some of the more obvious elements that appear here, like how the oompah-band beat of opener "Physical Mirage/Visible Magic" is quickly offset by a throbbing bed of contrapuntal bass, playing off the rhythm guitar and the drumming, before skittering off into fractious melodic stuttering like a stone skipping off the pond. "Stars and Molecules," another standout, juggles no less than four rhythm tracks across its three-minute runtime, shuffling through and incorporating Middle Eastern tabla pummel and Spanish guitar flourish out of a bedtime ballad start. There's even a bong hit purring somewhere towards the end.

Any track on Mosaics Within Mosaics – and what a fitting title for such a work – bears itself capable, even proud, of such scrutiny. Hart may traffic in whimsical notions, and use pastiche as a mode of expression, but unlike most, he's plumbing the depths of how one can use the studio to orchestrate the utter bliss that pop music brings. Somewhere between Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and Todd Rundgren lies the perfection of this estimable and stunning work.

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