I foolishly told a friend before a recent Stars Like Fleas gig that I thought they were the best live act in Brooklyn these days. I realize now that I should have said “most interesting.” At the time, it would’ve helped: The band (and audience) suffered through random feedback, a horrible mixing job from the live-music dummies at Studio B, and a performance in which the group’s members couldn’t have been less in sync with one another. It was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen them play.
“Interesting” is par for the course when you’re dealing with a band that rarely performs with the same lineup twice and still calls itself a band. Wikipedia lists 12 members, the liners to The Ken Burns Effect count 31, but I’m going with two: Montgomery Knott (vocals) and Shannon Fields (“too much to get into right now”). The duo, both admirable networkers who’ve drawn in former and current bandmates of Beirut, Mr. Bungle, and Scarlett Johansson, form the hub around which the group rotates. They craft dense webs of sound not unlike what Animal Collective might come up with if they were forced to make po-faced Califone covers. Burns, the group’s third album in 10 years, features acquired-taste singing, free jazz and electro-acoustic sidelights that last longer than the “songs” themselves, and maddeningly brief moments of absolute pop genius short-circuited by choice rather than incompetence.
Stars Like Fleas’ secret weapon is the fact that most, if not all, of their collaborators are skilled improvisers—learned conjurers who tend to work best in real-time, and less so when trapped on record. Regardless, what makes Ken Burns great is the fact that Fields et al. satisfyingly captured that idea, stuffing the album with sonic Easter eggs that reward headphone listening. Locked away in “Toast Siren,” for instance, is what sounds like a guy whooping and banging the Purdue University Marching Band bass drum (God knows why). So regard these tracks as questions, not statements, and then go see them for yourself. The last time I did? The best performance I’ve caught yet, of course.