For any resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, the idea of voluntarily going to the East Coast in winter is insane. You need a pretty good reason to ditch the sunshine for the arctic chill. The Stratford 4 found one: getting to record their major label debut. In January 2004, the four-piece headed to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village to record what would become their third album, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight, for Elektra Records. Hot on the heels of their feedback-drenched, gloriously messy Love and Distortion, the band had caught the ear of Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, who signed on to produce the album. Throughout its 11 tracks, their mix of frontman Chris Streng’s nonchalant singing and distorted guitars finally came into sharp focus. The melodies cut through the feedback and the guitars rang with fervent energy. “We really nailed it,” Streng said at the time. Nothing could derail their career, it seemed. And then their label fell apart.
In the same breath that The Stratford 4 struck gold, Elektra went under. Ocasek was able to return the album to the band, but unsure of their next move and plagued by internal tensions, they split up. They got jobs, had kids, and settled down. As bassist Sheetal Singh points out with a laugh, their time as rock and rollers became “cocktail party fodder.” Like Tolkien’s One Ring, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight disappeared from sight. But it wasn’t quite forgotten.
The Stratford 4 formed in San Francisco in 1999, solidifying their lineup in a rock club on Valentine’s Day. Streng says he wanted to make a record that “sounded like My Bloody Valentine produced by Wilco.” The band’s resulting debut LP, The Revolt Against Tired Noise, wasn’t too far off the mark. Surging layers of feedback and distortion were balanced by Streng’s nimble vocals. Over and under his Lou Reed-affected voice, songs sprawled and spiraled, walking a line between straight-ahead rock and roll and something more mysterious. It brought to mind the trap doors and sharp turns of Wilco’s experimental breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Love and Distortion followed in 2002, picking up where their debut left off, and the group toured with Beulah and the Walkmen. Ocasek stumbled across the record and signed the band to Elektra, where he was then working to find new acts for the label. During the recording sessions for KYCHOS, Streng likened Ocasek to an airplane pilot; he took the controls, allowing the band to concentrate on the music, and navigated them to what became their strongest record to date. And yet, it was a record destined to be heard by no one.
This January, on her way home from a family vacation, Singh met up with Streng. They hadn’t seen each other in years. “The album was a very obvious elephant in the room,” Streng explained. “It’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’” That’s exactly what they did. After talking to drummer Andrea Caturegli and guitarist Jake Hosek, the band decided the time was ripe to give the album a proper release. When asked if the record had been on his mind in the 10 years since recording it, Streng deadpanned, “Not that often, only every day.”
On the tender opening track, “Purple and Gold,” Streng picks a spare acoustic guitar figure over a woozy synthesizer. “I’m going to see my babe, I swear to God I will,” he states elegantly before the song moves gently forward, floating weightless like a magic carpet. But in the blink of an eye, the churning guitars and the cracking snare on “Just Sad Really,” the album’s walloping second track, shatter that tranquility like a wrecking ball. Later, on “Cracking Up,” the influence of less-distorted contemporaries like Belle and Sebastian gives the song a levity that helps distinguish it from the unrelenting guitar attacks on tracks like “Blissend” and “Summer’s Over.”
The band always had a knack for balancing Streng’s nonchalance with the fury of pounded drums and overdriven guitars. Yet while their previous albums found Streng’s voice buried a little deeper in the mix, Ocasek’s magic touch throws it in sharp relief. Streng’s even vocal cuts through the fireworks of noise exploding around him. On closing track “Drive Asleep,” guitars rise and fall while he sings simply, “I was dreaming / I was driving you home.” After the dense instrumentation and fast pace of the album, it serves as a resolution, a return to the calm established in “Purple and Gold.”
The Stratford 4 talk about getting back together with the eagerness of teenagers ecstatic to play their first high school battle of the bands. “I missed playing music,” Singh says. “I had this change where I went from not thinking about it to thinking about it all the time.” Will there be shows, a tour, a chance to make even more music? Only time will tell, but Streng is undoubtedly positive about it. “The whole project ended so abruptly,” he says. “Even this long after the fact, I feel like we still have something to prove.”