In the last two years, Heads on Sticks have gone from a largely studio-bound offshoot of a prominent local bandleader and sideman to one of the best live acts in the area. Birds of Avalon bassist David Mueller began the project by cobbling dirty dance grooves with misshapen psychedelic bits, mostly consisting of samples, field recordings and absurdly distorted instruments. The results operate like sound collages but somehow move bodies like nightclub anthems, thanks in large part to Mueller's deft hand with sensual rhythm.
It's an entrancing mix and one with so many shifting parts that a consistent live presentation seemed impossible. Mueller's current team of local rock aces not only maintains the spirit of his recordings, but also enhances it with a more focused sonic palate. They intensify the basslines and opt for a lush electronic haze in place of intricately layered samples. Brutish & Short, the band's new EP, capitalizes on this approach, making it the Sticks' most consistently worthwhile effort to date.
Consider "Witness," which rides bass and guitar that buzz with garage-rock energy. It's pushed into double-time by high-speed drums and bold slashes of multicolor synths. "Cat's Paw" enters on a bed of ghoulish sound effects and stuttering electronic drums. In the verses, however, a strong-arm bassline grabs hold and pushes the song forward with a sexy, sinister sway. Repetitive, warped vocal samples usher in the triumphant chorus, which feels overwhelming and expansive: "I'm on fire/ Can't you feel it?" Mueller sings with the jubilance of true revelation.
The economic approach, which works so well for Mueller's live band, delivers an instant likeability to Brutish & Short. On previous outings, the density of his dance-rock pastiche could be tough to penetrate. Here, he prunes the noise and arrives at a set of sonic oddities that accentuate his unstoppable rhythms. On fire, indeed.