These Curious Thoughts - What is it and how did it get in there album cover, as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothThese Curious Thoughts write powerful compositions - indie/post-rock at its finest. What is it, and how did it get in there? is unique, strange enough to beg additional listens, and profound enough to demand a few more.

What is it, and how did it get in there?
Artist: These Curious Thoughts
Label: independent
Time: 16 tracks / 66:00 minutes

In a sentence, These Curious Thoughts is indie rock at its finest. Theirs is a bit of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin or a Transatlantic story (reference for progheads), as Sean Dunlop and Jamie Radford have collaborated via the internet on compositions for nearly a decade. Being separated by the Atlantic Ocean and 3600 miles has not dampened the productivity of this musical endeavor: Dunlop and Radford have together released nearly 10 full-length studio albums since 2004, (five as These Curious Thoughts, four as Shock of the Cold) utilizing modern recording software and e-mail to share musical ideas. Radford provides lyrical inspiration for Dunlop to compose around, and Dunlop performs their compositions live with various musicians in the Detroit area. Released late in 2013, What is it, and how did it get in there? is the band's 5th studio album, soon to be superseded by their current project, Inventing Dr. Sutherland, and his Traveling Hospital.

The first thing I want to highlight about What is it is the lyrics. Generally speaking, there are plenty of trippy, post-rock and indie bands who string nonsensical words together without much thought - partly to have lyrics to go along with their guitar solos and partly to trick the audience into thinking that they're missing something. Not so with TCT. Jamie Radford manages to paint unique word tapestries: mental pictures of exquisite (and often grotesque) beauty, with enough gaps left for the imagination to do the rest of the work. Their song concepts remain mysterious - sometimes borderline indecipherable - but bear the weight of deeper truth, a truth that feels just out of comprehension's reach.

More often than not, Radford's concepts navigate the narrow but flawless line between clever and absolutely wacky – such as in "John Wayne," a psychedelic track that proposes Johnny is Batman's brother, albeit from another mother. The warbling guitar riff that gives way to melancholic acoustic guitar offers an uncertain, half-subconscious type of reasoning. Another highlight for me, and perhaps a microcosm of the album as a whole, is "Brain in a Jar." This song has some fantastic and obscure similes: "Brain in a jar... / like a house of cards / like an asteroid / like a messed up teen / etc." The lyrics capture ideas of merciless social scrutiny and vapid impersonality, conjuring images of cold, sterile, laboratories. The guitar lick that pervades throughout the song is a solid if repetitive hook.

There's a lot of solid writing here, and too much to take apart completely. "Heavy Like a Rock" is a strong album-opener with its funky, bluesy groove and the big, opposing imagery it establishes: "I might look like Jesus/Caesar, most people call me Judas/Brutus." Somehow, this particular sentiment feels autobiographical - not just another album caricature.

"Shades of Gray" is the ambiguous story of justifying personal guilt by interpreting one's actions through the shades of gray woven into "life's rich tapestry." This track features interspersed dialogue between a man and a woman - snippets of a conspiracy they have uncovered (in which both, perhaps, are implicit) - as well as a lyrical shoutout to the band's name: "The mind is swamped with curious thoughts." Another lyrical highlight on What is it finds its voice here: "Can you see there's blood on my hands? / The washing machine, oh it understands / It cleans my clothes when I've been bad / It gives me hope when the sun goes black."

"Daughter of Morpheus," a lustful song about a shapeshifting love interest, contains one of my favorite lyrics on the album: "Did I mention my insomnia / And how every single night I lie awake in my bed / but cannot close the eyes in my head." Sometimes it's the simplest idea, stated succinctly, that hits you.

"Tears in the Rain" boasts more solid lyricism as well as a quirky outro that almost simulates a CD skip, thanks to the looping "Never speak my name again" line overlaying measures of 3-3-2, which awkwardly reset the sequence. I particularly like the lines, "I won the battle but not the war / with mechanical disciples / Here's food for thought: / my mind forgot to eat again today." The longest track on the album, "DNA Bounce," ends in a swirl of ambient noise - guitar loops and synth beds of chromatic scales. The closing lick on "Bad Milk" is ample representation of Dunlop's catchy and profound writing on the guitar.

Altogether, What is it is a strong album as a whole and as individual songs. It's unique, strange enough to beg additional listens, and profound enough to demand a few more. However, my biggest (and really only) complaint about this album is Radford's flippant use of profanity. As a writer, a lyricist myself, and an incurable reader, it is my educated conviction - morality aside - that communication is done so much more effectively when four-letter words are replaced by something more purposeful. Swearing truly has become the glorified "ums" and "uhs" in spoken forms of communication - filler for blanks in the mind. Granted, there's a place for profanity, but the way Radford uses it is jarring, and not in an edgy way - more like a lazy alternative to finding something better suited to the song. I've heard plenty of worse offenders in this category, so this complaint is comparatively minor, but it does bear weight.

I won't end on a negative. The unique pair of minds behind These Curious Thoughts write powerful compositions. Their songs are catchy, have individual personalities, and represent a wide variety of characters. If I had to make some comparisons, I'd say their sound contains all the eccentricities of Colour Revolt, R.E.M., and Modest Mouse; the prog mechanics of Porcupine Tree; and the overall post-rock ideology. And if you can make any sense out of that sentence, then What is it, and how did it get in there? just might be for you.

Justin Carlton