on Nov 1, 2012

Red Stars Theory had impeccable taste. They named a song after one of the best lines from Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” They released a John Coltrane cover as a single. They were a quintessential Pacific Northwest entity; formed and led by One Foot in the Grave cover co-star James Bertram of the increasingly legendary Lync, they shared members with Modest Mouse (Jeremiah Green), 764-Hero (Bertram), and others. They put out records on labels with cultural cache, such as Chicago's untouchable Touch and Go Records (RIP). But they didn't put out too many of them: not counting comp tracks and any other strays, their physical output was two full-length albums, two 10-inches, and three 7-inches. (Their first 10-inch and 7-inch were later combined and repackaged.)

Front cover of "Slow Curve"/"Castle Rock"
A lot about Red Stars Theory can be read in those mere three 7-inches. The first, "Slow Curve"/"Castle Rock," (or call it Linguaphone, per the cover art) holds the answer to how James Bertram transitioned from the banging lo-fi chaos of Lync to making exquisite nap time indie rock. "Slow Curve" and "Castle Rock" are loosely managed bursts, both under three minutes long, that sound a little less all over the room than Lync, but not by much. True, there were quiet-loud parts throughout the soon-to-come But Sleep Came Slowly, but the tumult there was buffered by lulling gentle swells. Linguaphone made sense contextually at the time of its release, though soon became increasingly out of place in their catalog, settling into the role of a misleading first stab, though it remains the key to their origins.

Front cover of "Tremely"/"Rustin"
In the middle of the trio sits "Tremely"/"Rustin", recorded on Valentine's Day and the day after in 1999, and released as part of the literal-minded and short-lived Paper Bag Series later that year. It is unclear if side A is meant to be an abbreviated form of the word "extremely," but it is not a real word itself. Neither is 'rustin', but Ruston is a tiny municipality on the edge of Tacoma, Washington. Word issues and all, "Tremely"/"Rustin" is another outlier. About as close to "psych rock" as they got, it is an adventurous push for the band, uptempo and aggressive, but in a much different way than Linguaphone. A high spaced-out guitar line floats above a kick-heavy echoing beat. The feeling of the song suggests wide open space, not intimacy. Conversely, "Rustin" is built out of hallmark RST components. It is the band doing what they do best; letting Seth Warren steal half of the show.

Though not technically a founding member, much of the heart of Red Stars Theory was violinist Seth Warren, who has gone on to play with many others. "Rustin" is as gorgeous an example of his work as any, but "exhibit A" might be “I Thought About You" from But Sleep Came Slowly. It turns the spotlight on Warren and each longing note that he pulls out, an extended solo that drifts along in smoky tranquility as the rest of the band lays a tidy instrumental bed underneath. Bertram finally comes in after four minutes, whispering “I thoouught about you/again today” which stirs the band into briefly getting rougher with their instruments before settling back down to finish. Warren’s warm loneliness is the highlight of most every RST song he touched, which says a lot, given the talents of everyone else in that group.

Back of "Tremely"/"Rustin"
"Rustin" is also notable for guitarist Tony Palmasani's rare and able appearance on lead vocals. In the credits, he's named "Tonie", unlike anywhere else. Given that, and the other aforementioned language issues with this record, it is interesting that the 7-inch before it had "language courses" written on the cover. That point leads to a very curious thematic consistency between these two 7-inches: packaging. The front of Linguaphone was an image of a picture and label attached to a brown paper folder with torn bits of masking tape. Intentionally or not, the Paper Bag Series took that a step further and brought those two materials to life, putting the record in a plain cardboard sleeve, wrapping it in plain brown grocery bag paper, stamping simple labels on both sides, and then sealing it all up with wide strips of masking tape. By virtue of its very design, this connection was ephemeral; as soon as you unwrapped "Tremely"/"Rustin," the similarity was lost - unless you saved the wrapping and taped it back up every time.

Front cover of "Naima"
Not too long after the release of their second long player, Life in a Bubble Can Be Beautiful, and the shows they played in support of it, Red Stars Theory sadly began to wind down record-wise with the “Naima” 7-inch and the final self-titled EP with the cartoon sheep on the cover, reprising their trademark sleep theme one last time. With everyone in RST being in at least one other band, their fading out wasn’t surprising. Technically the EP was the last official release, but -- comprised as it was of two remixes, a re-recording of a Life track, and one new tune -- it felt like a stop-gap on the way to something else. "Naima," on the other hand, is a more fitting drowsy denouement; the sound of a single falling feather slowly drifting ground-ward. Stepping up to Coltrane is daunting, and the violin naturally cuts a more stately presence than saxophone, but Warren's interpretation is true to form. As much as Life followed a diminishing energy from its first to last song, the three 7-inches, listened to in order, starkly illustrate how they calmed down over their entire lifespan. They are surprisingly appropriate mile markers. (They should also, at this point, be lost treasures that were snatched up long ago, but the last two are still well available for the same four dollars they were last decade. Go figure.)