Prison to Prison EP

(Pendu Sound; 2012)

By Maura McAndrew | 10 January 2013

Growing up in the Midwest, surrounded on all sides by cornfields in the summer and icy tundra in the winter, I used to have dreams about the desert. I dreamed about relaxing on the hood of a car in Joshua Tree National Park; of driving on pin-straight roads through Nevada with a Wile E. Coyote cartoon horizon in view; of moseying up to that Mojave Desert truck stop Michael Stipe visits in the “Man on the Moon” video. I even dreamed about making my way to the coast, lying on some fine white beach at night, staring up at the moon and back at the mountains and thinking about how much richer life can seem on the edge of a continent. I haven’t done any of these things, of course; the closest I’ve been to the Mojave is L.A., “Man on the Moon” was shot on a set, I hate driving, and I’m scared to go to the beach at night. But I still love this idea of the west coast that I once cobbled together out of commercials and music videos and cartoons. And it’s this idea, silly and naïve and irresistible, that comes flooding back to me when I hear Starred’s undeniably west coast-infused EP Prison to Prison.

Prison to Prison shows that Starred, the duo of singer Liza Thorn (previously of Christopher Owens’s band Curls) and guitarist Matt Koshak, have a firm grasp on mood: they make music that feels arid and heat-stoned, thick with attitude that’s sullen and restless but too bone-tired to do anything about it. This is fitting, as the band formed in L.A. (Thorn’s hometown) but relocated to Brooklyn before recording their first EP. And though the subject matter of the songs is vaguely sketched, Prison to Prison is fueled by an intense longing for a particular feeling or fantasy, sometimes confused, especially in the throes of nostalgia, for a physical place—in this case southern California.

Thorn is the right vocalist for this feeling, with a deep, melancholy, and off-kilter sound that might risk verging on try-hard sultry if she didn’t restrain it the way she does, slow and steady but occasionally bursting into a gravel-voiced yell. Not quite settling on a signature sound, most often Thorn is uncannily Courtney Love-ish, captivating and wavering off-key, but other times channels Jennifer Herrema or even Victoria Bergsman. Koshak is mainly a silent and shadowy presence, backing up Thorn with a liquid guitar and humming organ that turns these drugged-in-the-desert lullabies into slow-burning hymns.

The record doesn’t kick off so much as ooze into life with opener “Call from Paris,” an echo-y, sparse tune about a faraway lover that may be on the phone but might as well be gone forever. It’s a good companion to the standout among these six songs, “L.A. Drugs,” which plays like a band manifesto: ruminations on a city that’s equally liberating and confining, a haven and a trap. A woozy organ trembles and Thorn sings, slowly and deliberately, “Los Angeles is made for drugs / Driving in cars / Spilling my guts.” Like “Call from Paris,” “L.A. Drugs” is aching and lonely, though the warmth of the organ provides a modicum of comfort. This is the feeling that Starred is able to mostly maintain on Prison to Prison, and once the band settles into it, they’re hypnotic. Even “Committee,” which is certainly the perkiest of the bunch, has that same sense of isolation and exhaustion, while still evoking a common west coast fantasy: “Maybe I’ll do it on my own / Sunburned, I’m living on the beach.” Even though Thorn ends this line of thought with “It’s a hard time,” there’s a part of all of us that thinks a life like that doesn’t sound so bad.

Prison to Prison builds nicely along these lines, from restlessness on “Call from Paris” to a nearly suffocating sense of inertia on feedback-laden closer “Light.” The only track that doesn’t really fit in is “Sure Bet,” basically a Royal Trux tribute song that frustratingly wedges itself into the delicate slow burn of the rest of the EP. Here Thorn adopts a Herrema-style growl and puts on a badass pose that’s at odds with her solemn and emotional performance elsewhere. It breaks the spell for a moment, but fortunately the rest of the songs are strong enough to overpower it.

Overall, Prison to Prison is impressive mood piece, subtly mining feelings of longing, restlessness, and nostalgia within a firmly west coast aesthetic. Though their influences are constantly rearing up throughout these songs, one can still hear Thorn and Koshak’s voices rising to the fore, struggling, and often succeeding, at the difficult work of creating something deeper.