"Fresh possibilities is what Stellarondo is all about, from its crystalline lyrical imagery to its imaginative soundscapes conveying the expansiveness of Big Sky country." -by Marga Lincoln
A culture of “yes” is what sparks and inspires Stellarondo, a new “astral art-folk” group from Missoula.
Stellarondo makes its Helena debut Thursday, May 12, at the Montana Club Rathskeller. Opening the show is Helena’s new acoustic group Tombigbee at 7:30 p.m.
Stellarondo’s impetus grew out of an artistic quest. Vocalist/guitarist Caroline Keys took up the national RPM (record production month) challenge to write and record an online album in one month. She decided it was just the grueling, but creative nudge she needed.
Keys, who plays old-timey blugrass music with Broken Valley Roadshow, was finding the genre confining. The typical subject matter — romance gone bad — was just too limiting, she admits. “There’s much more interesting things to write about.”
In February 2010, she set out to write 10 songs in 28 days, composing not just the lyrics but playing all the instruments.
“Having a deadline during that process was a big deal. It forced me to get rid of the censor and just keep moving forward,” she said. “There was no judgment there. I’d say it’s been a continued theme with this gang.”
Somewhere in the process of Keys’ solo adventure, she drew in other talented Missoula musicians. Rounding out what is now the Stellarondo quintet are percussionist Angie Biehl (Broken Valley Roadshow), bassist Travis Yost and guitarist Gibson Hartwell (both from Tom Catmull and the Clerics) and Bethany Joyce (Wartime Blues), on cello and saw.
“My songs come from my own memories, both emotional landscapes and physical landscapes,” Keys said. “Some are just plain old fiction.”
The RPM challenge worked. “I feel liberated — both subject- and structure-wise,” said Keys.
And in September 2010 they officially recorded their namesake album during a three-day studio session in Portland, Ore., with recording engineer Adam Selzer.
“We had this magical and intensely creative time in the studio,” Keys said. “Since then we’ve really enjoyed these bursts of isolation and then intense creativity.”
The latest burst was this spring. Stellarondo was visiting Hobson School in Central Montana on a grant from the Montana Arts Council. “We let ourselves into the school after hours and had a wordless noise jam,” said Keys. “We played and played and played. There were moments of beauty and moments of loud chaos. After that was done, we felt that opened up a world of new possibilities for this group.”
Fresh possibilities is what Stellarondo is all about, from its crystalline lyrical imagery to its imaginative soundscapes conveying the expansiveness of Big Sky country.
“Out of the sonic bloom of pedal steel, banjo, cello, glockenspiel, musical saw, upright bass and vibraphone Stellarondo spills out songs about stalkers, roadside anomalies, love and haunted hotels” — is how the band describes their music on their website.
Willamette Week wrote: “Keys’ songwriting slips between pretty, descriptive narratives (‘What I Know’) and more impressionistic pieces (‘The March Brute,’ which finds Keys singing: ‘Backstage at a funeral/All I can do is hiss/My teeth don’t fit together anymore/Behind these lips.’) All of it sounds lush and well-plotted, if a bit quirky...”
As to the group’s equally quirky name – Keys tapped her Southern roots, borrowing the name from a character in Eudora Welty’s short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.”
An English literature and creative writing graduate, Keys relocated to Montana following summer adventures as a boat captain at Glacier National Park.
While her fellow musicians knew from very early on they wanted to play music, Keys didn’t take up a guitar until she was 20. After hearing a group of musicians at a house party in Chatanooga, Tenn., she returned to her dorm, borrowed a guitar and sat up all night teaching herself chords. That was the beginning of a hobby that.’s taken over her life.
“I feel really lucky to be surrounded by such aces,” she said of her fellow musicians. “Such fun aces too. It’s a culture of yes. If you have an idea, we will explore it for sure.”
They’re looking forward to Thursday night. “We’re just really excited to present this.”
Opening their concert is Helena group Tombigbee. Members are Zach Owen on banjo, Karen Newlon on violin and John Dendy on bass. Tombigbee plays not just bluegrass but also borrows from the blues, Latin, jazz and folk traditions. Like Stellarondo, their creator is also a Southern expat who turned to the South — a river in Alabama — when naming the group."
"If you’re into hearing the sounds and tropes of folk and country music as filtered through the less-than-reverent ears and brains of young, energetic musicians, I highly recommend checking out Stellarondo" -Levi Fuller
Stellarondo’s self-titled album is a strong, diverse batch of songs that have country/folky leanings but aren’t slavishly attempting to recreate a bygone era, rounded out beautifully by the production of Adam Seltzer at Type Foundry. They start things off very interestingly indeed, with “Icarus Stops for a Burrito,” a relatively simple song punctuated with head-turning 1/8 note runs on marimba and guitar. Later on in the album we hear “Strawberry Cake,” a laid-back country ballad with an understated string arrangement that add a richer, more subtle texture than your standard rootsy fare. That tune is followed up by “Three Cowgirls on Redchurch,” a downright strange number with a raucous, Southwestern vibe that evokes an amped-up Calexico, trumpets and electric guitar a-blazing, beefed up with fuzz bass and rock drums. Then we’re back to ballad town with “What I Know,” which makes perfect use of lap steel guitar, melodica (I think), and one of the best saw performances I’ve heard in a while (certainly way better than anything I could pull off).
I think my favorite song on the album, though, is “Hotel Roberts,” a rough-edged banjo tune with all sorts of bowed skronkiness, hectic guitar and percussion, and Keys’s voice sounding like it’s coming down a phone line. If “Three Cowgirls” was Calexico, this one’s got Califone all over it. (And hey, those are my two favorite bands that start with “Cal-”!) At its core it could be an old folk song, collected by Harry Smith and updated for the 21st century by Caroline and her band of noisemakers. If you’re into hearing the sounds and tropes of folk and country music as filtered through the less-than-reverent ears and brains of young, energetic musicians, I highly recommend checking out Stellarondo. Hopefully we’ll get to see them live here in Seattle before too long.
"Songs that remind me of the best of the Handsome Family."
"Sick of new bands that can’t get beyond that guitar, bass and drums rut? Looking for something a little left-of-center. Take Stellarondo
In case it’s gnawing at you, the band’s name comes from a character in Eudora Welty’s short story, Why I Live at the P.O., which is pretty fitting given the candid and richly-detailed vignettes that comprise the band’s self-titled debut, which is available now. Not sure if you’d be down with Stellarondo? Try a little Strawberry Cake."
"Stellarondo came all the way from Missoula to record this year's self-titled full-length with Adam Selzer, but the record still sounds—thanks to country strumming, Western horns, sharp strings and one very mournful pedal steel—like Montana. Caroline Keys' vocals remind of Breeders frontwoman Kim Deal, were she played by Shelley Duvall in a biopic. Keys' songwriting slips between pretty, descriptive narratives ("What I Know") and more impressionistic pieces ("The March Brute," which finds Keys singing: "Backstage at a funeral/ All I can do is hiss/ My teeth don't fit together anymore/ Behind these lips"). All of it sounds lush and well-plotted, if a bit quirky—an adjective that fits Montana and Portland as well as it does Stellarondo."
"Stellarondo is the sound of the new Western frontier." -Joe Nickell
Stellarondo is the sound of the new Western frontier. Nevermind that the Missoula-based band at times echoes the delicate Midwestern soundscapes of Sufjan Stevens and Poi Dog Pondering, or the doleful West Coast chamber-folk of Fleet Foxes and David Bazan. The brainchild of local singer/guitarist/banjoist Caroline Keys, Stellarondo encapsulates not just the varied musical personalities of its members (who hail from past and present local acts including Broken Valley Road Show, Tom Catmull & the Clerics, Tarkio, the Fidgets, Wartime Blues, and others), but the textures of Montana's regional music scene as a whole.
It's all there, plain to the ear, on the band's self-titled CD, which will be released at the band's performance next Tuesday, Feb. 1, at the Union Hall Theater, upstairs from the Union Club on East Main Street. (The show will consist of a kid-friendly set at 5:30 p.m., followed by an 8 p.m. repeat performance; admission is $5 and $10 respectively. The Scribblers will open the first show; Amy Martin will open the second show.)
Playing out in a snappy 26 minutes, the eight-track album sets a scene as wide as Big Sky Country, a place full of color and mystery and no small number of oddball characters.
Consider the contrasts in "Hotel Roberts," where distorted cello drones under a simple, minor-key Appalachian-style melody, all set against a knee-slapping, electro-tribal beat: High Lonesome meets subterranean post-apocalyptica. That's followed by a quick jump-cut to Keys' banjo thrumming through "Mellow Bone," a wistful instrumental interlude that evokes nothing beyond the wide-open plains.
"Icarus Stops for a Burrito" floats ever skyward on swirling arpeggios of xylophone, thumb piano, and vibraphone; "The March Brute" lays out in peaceful repose on a shimmering bed of vocal harmonies. "Three Cowgirls on Redchurch" marches along to a Tex-Mex rhythm until suddenly, the spooks arrive, playing the musical saw and erupting in an alt-rock din.
So it goes, hither and yon, held on track by Keys' distinctive voice and precisely enunciated observations of inner and outer life.
"Of all the things to miss, I bet I missed the point the most / And of all the things to say, I've said too much," she sings on the nostalgic "Strawberry Cake." The point may fit the song, but it hardly fits the album: As soon as it's over, I want to hear it all again.
"Pushes the boundaries of what roots music can be" - William Kennedy
Banjo? Xylophone? Jumprope? Why not. Missoula, Mont. avant-bluegrass ensemble Stellarondo takes a “kitchen sink” approach to instrumentation, defining their folk music as broadly as Montana’s big sky. Stellarondo is a “supergroup” of Missoula area musicians that includes Gibson Hartwell, who was in Tarkio with Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. The collective formed when primary vocalist and songwriter Caroline Keys participated in the 2010 RPM Challenge, an online project that declared musicians to write and record a minimum of 10 songs in the month of February.
And now, one year later, they’re on the road supporting their latest, self-titled release, which was produced in Portland. Stellarondo knows exactly when to let the sweet harmonies and porch-stompin’ rhythms of bluegrass take center-stage. Keys’ voice creaks like an old rocking chair as she spins yarns about stalkers and haunted hotels. And the band accompanies her skeletal banjo playing with everything from cello to tympani, providing an atmospheric soundtrack that pushes the boundaries of what roots music can be.
Bass player Travis Yost told the Missoula Independent that Stellarondo “is the most collaborative group I’ve ever been in. If you bring a ukulele, you’re gonna play it. No rules. No one to say, ‘You can’t do that.’ What’s it gonna sound like? Who gives a shit? Try it.”