Stockton, CA, artist Justin Paul Vallesteros records under the moniker Craft Spells, producing a sort of soft, synthy, dreamy compendium of new wave and 80’s pop. Throughout his new album, Idle Labor, Vallesteros infuses a lyrical melancholy into his shifting, emotionally potent music. From the chorus of opening track “For the Ages” (the dour insistence of “Even though our love has died, you’re still mine”), it’s clear that no matter how dance floor-friendly and exciting the music might get, there won’t be any celebratory tracks on this one. Instead, the over-the-top mopey lyrics combine with the spot-on New Order impressions to come away as another solid, uninspired New Wave revival disc.
Early track “Scandinavian Crush” further solidifies the themes that Vallesteros relies on: heavily reverbed vocals, numb, dimly hopeful love lyrics, cheesy synth drums, and the occasional stab of Duran Duran guitars. Two minutes into the track, the majority of the instrumentation falls away, leaving a punchy bass line and Vallesteros alone, asking when he can see his hopeful love again. The sunny, almost tropical beat on “Party Talk” is backgrounded constantly by moaning vocal harmonies, and the lead is a dead ringer for Bernard Sumner, buried deep in the mix and smothered in reverb. While the music contains a varied, pulsing life, the lyrics remain constant, even flat, throughout. While the affected sadness is a staple of the genre that Vallesteros aims for, the achingly simple lyrical explorations of that sadness lack the punch of other versions of the same.
The machine gun synth drum rolls and cooing female backup vocals of “From the Morning Heat” add a layer of interest, as does the disco-ready “After the Moment”. While Vallestero’s lyrics regularly lack excitement, his instrumental choices certainly make up for it. His inspirations are worn on his shirtsleeve, yet he somehow simultaneously manages to sound original rather than derivative. His slight background flourishes and tonal choices (see the bassy ghost notes on the mellow “Given the Time”) keep things fresh, giving the album an inherently listenable quality that the lyrics belie. Together, the two can clash but never enough that it destroys an individual song.