Everything is Illuminated? Well, not quite.
“I’m a deer in your headlights”, singer Jim Putnam tells us as the start of this gauzy, languid record, “and I’m a bird in your gunsights.” It’s an appropriate beginning to a record rife with animal imagery—song titles include “For the Birds”, “Horses Warriors”, “Chickens”, and even “People”—and lyrics suggestive of self-doubt, bordering on self-loathing.
The Illuminated Garden is either the sixth record from Radar Brothers or their first, depending on your method of accounting: having released five previous records as Radar Bros, the band split, leaving Putnam to restock the rhythm section and carry on with new bassist Be Hussey and drummer Steve Treichel. Longtime fans had reason to wonder what this new incarnation would sound like.
The answer is frustrating. Album opener “Dear Headlights” sets the tone in many ways, with sweet harmonies and hushed lyrics delivered at a slow tempo; the song grows more affecting with repeated listens. But the followup, “Rainbow”, struggles to find a tune and fails, while “For the Birds” brings a dirgelike feel to its arrangement of acoustic guitar and calliope-like tootling, reinforced through the plaintive lyrics: “Take me out of this town / Throw me from the bridge / Gray steel girders dance with me / The fish below, they smile.” Despite its funereal qualities, the song gains momentum through layered vocals and swelling orchestration, and achieves a rare moment of transcendence. “Quarry” brings a slightly harder edge (but not too hard) and somewhat discordant tone to the guitars, while keeping the tempos unhurried and the mood introspective and vulnerable. “I want you, I need you”, we are told. “Right now my life’s on a cereal box.” Make of that what you will.
“Horses Warriors”, midway through the album, picks up the pace a little, thank God. The lyrics evoke an insular world populated with non sequiturs and mystery: “There, I see you’ve got your pachydermal diary”, Putnam sings early on, and, “But the horses and warriors are going to tear you apart, and take all you got / So you might as well sit down and watch the picture show.” To the band’s credit, these head-scratchers are delivered with a degree of conviction that saves them from absurdity. The lovely harmonies help, too, as does a galloping beat reminiscent of a band of runaway thoroughbreds.
This is the highlight of the record, and the second half grows weaker with repeated listenings. “Chickens” bring us back in slow-tempo territory, where we dither for much of the rest of the disc. Vocals remain hushed, guitars gauzy, beats slow. There is a thin line between languid and lethargic, and Radar Brothers increasingly fail to stay on the right side of this divide.
The songs work best when the record’s prevailing tone of opiated dreaminess is punctured with moments of unease: “All the birds are just chickens anyway / So we washed the blood from our hands.” Unfortunately, such moments are few. While “And the Birds” benefits from a layered upswell of orchestration in the latter half of the song, “Xmas Lights” kills the momentum with some truly wretched singing. By now, the repetitive formula—slow tempos, languid harmonies, shimmery guitar—is delivering diminishing returns. The album closer, “Radio”, despite the most energetic percussion on the record, just sort of putters out.
It remains to be seen whether this new lineup can find more tunes akin to “Dear Headlights” and “Horses Warriors”. If so, great. If not, then Radar Brothers may see its returns diminish even further.