Cryptic Pop

California trio Cryptacize explores the margins of traditional pop

"Our music is definitely not an easy sell," says Chris Cohen, guitarist/vocalist for Crockett, Calif., band Cryptacize. "If it was an easy sell, I would probably wonder to myself if it was really worth doing. What we do seems totally normal to me, and we're not really worried about how we might fit in with other bands. That said, we try, in our way, to be as accessible as possible."

This leads us to the paradox that is Cryptacize: The band's music—an odd mix of poetic whimsy that channels, at least in the lyrics, the works of Jonathan Richman, Daniel Johnston, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez—exists in the marginalia of the rock 'n' roll canon. In fact, the band's catalog is more like the sounds of Portland's K Records, Broadway, folk music, the song cycles of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht, and Edith Piaf. In short, the music sounds like what might happen if Judy Garland performed truncated dub versions of Brian Wilson songs, if that makes any sense.

The group's instrumentation, which relies on non-standard tools like violins, autoharps, and odd percussion gadgets, is certainly tangential to the rock standard of excessively amplified guitars, bass, and drums. If you're expecting songs with the standard verse-chorus-verse construction, look elsewhere. For want of a better term, the band's sound could be described as post-pop. This kind of music is a hard sell in rock clubs.

"I think that [lack of genre affiliation] makes us not easy to market, I guess," Cohen says. "But I think experiencing [the band] is best. I would just try to get anybody to hear it at all—whatever I think they want to hear, I'll tell them that's what we are. So then when they hear it, they might have their own impression."

True to form, Cryptacize's debut album, Dig That Treasure, requires a bit of getting used to. The group, which also includes vocalist/guitarist Nedelle Torrisi and percussionist Michael Carreira, delivers 11 songs that defy expectations. Key to the band's success is singer Torrisi, who leads the bulk of the selections with crystal clear, pitch-perfect vocals that add a high-gloss sheen to the peculiar pop perfection of the songs. Whether you connect with the band's off kilter approach is another matter.

Since its inception, the band has done quite a bit of touring. And replicating the sounds of the album in a live context has imposed a bit of difficulty for the group.

"We're not really married to any one instrument," says Cohen. "We have a lot of songs with the autoharp in them, but we didn't bring that with us this time around because it kept going out of tune on tour." The band currently employs guitars, a keyboard, a standard drum kit, and a host of percussive accessories.

Cryptacize's avoidance of standard musical structure works as an asset or a liability, depending on your perspective. The songs meander along at a relaxed pace, and every time the listener might find a tentative grip on some sort of rhythmic pattern, there is a lull, a time change, or some type of sonic detour. In its way, the music is linear, moving through a number of sonic phases that rarely refer back to earlier passages in the same composition. It's as if the music is constructed to follow lyrical patterns that aren't based upon traditional songwriting and lyrical structures like meter and repetition. Provided you can cast aside your preconceptions about how songs should be constructed, Cryptacize's music can prove rewarding.

"Everything is usually mapped out," Cohen says. "The songs are pretty well composed and then we just sort of structure them naturally around the lyrics. We do some stuff where, instead of counting, we just kind of cue each other with a look—or we're just listening and following the vocals.

"On this tour, we're gonna play some new songs too. Our new stuff, we wanted to do something that has a beat that kind of carries through a little bit more."

As to the grand meaning of the Cryptacize sound, Cohen is a bit cryptic.

"I don't think there's, like, one particular mood or overarching theme to our music. But in a lot of our songs, we want to tell sort of a story. A lot of things are not based in reality, like, ‘This is what happened to me today'—although some of them are. But we wanted our songs to be kind of fantastical, sort of like folk. Our songs are not about the ordinary world. So maybe we're offering a kind of escapism. It's sort of a musical world that you can escape into."