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To say that there's a continual fascination for the synth/guitar pop '80s in the 21st century -- conceptually if not necessarily wholly re-created out of thin air -- would be an understatement. Little surprise then that Craft Spells' debut album, Idle Labor, fits in among so many in 2011 and other recent years for all that it nods back to the mid-'80s pretty clearly -- and even littler surprise that it would be on a sympathetic label like Captured Tracks -- but what's crucial about the album is that it's aiming for anything but a cheap-and-cheery buzz through past fashions. The album cover may seem like a direct nod to New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies, but bandleader Justin Paul Vallesteros instead suggests what might have happened if Morrissey -- or maybe more accurately a Morrissey fan from 1986 -- had barged in on the sessions for Low-Life or Brotherhood in the absence of Bernard Sumner, a combination of reflective moodiness and electronic elegance that nods more toward minimal synth than Trevor Horn maximalism. The result's a surprising treat in that what could have simply been a fan exercise rapidly takes on its own logic with songs like "Scandinavian Crush," "Your Tomb," and "After the Moment" combining pep and gentle energy with Vallesteros' inartful singing bringing in clearer feelings of hesitation and melancholy. In a way, Craft Spells follows in a well-established tradition of Anglophilic synth mood -- both Book of Love and the Magnetic Fields are implicit forebears in turn. But Idle Labor is its own spin, not as fully distinct as it could be yet, but all the more enjoyable for being a later interpretation of past impulses. "The Fog Rose High" and the concluding "You Should Close the Door" are other strong standouts -- the latter's synth really hits the New Order spot hard -- while "Given the Time" shows that quiet percussion and drones can work just as effectively as a musical bed as a full arrangement for the band. -- All Music

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