Olympia, Washington’s Desolation Wilderness made a solid name for themselves in the late 2000s by crafting languid, detached-but-pretty rock music for the slowly swaying masses. When the band recently decided to wrap its project up, frontman Nicolas Zwart quickly announced he’d continue recording under the name Electric Sunset. The inimitable K Records, Desolation Wilderness’s home, also gives shelter to Electric Sunset, whose eponymous debut shows Zwart hewing close to his former collective’s formula.
Drum machines have replaced live percussion here, but listeners will be hard pressed to find many more differences between Zwart’s new band and his old one. His chiming, jangling guitars still anchor every song, and his airy, approaching-“angelic”-territory vocals glide easily over pleasant melodies. He seems more enamored with keyboards on Electric Sunset than on earlier recordings, but even that new instrumentation takes a backseat to his familiar voice and fairly standard approach to indie pop songwriting.
Album highlight “Soda” serves as the best point of entry into Zwart’s world: start with a simple backbeat, let the guitars edge their way in (but never forcefully!), sing so prettily that the vocals almost seem filtered through some lo-fi version of Autotune and let the keys gently reinforce that happy robot feel. If that sounds snarky, it’s not meant to—not when dealing with this song, anyway, which stands as four minutes of subtly joyful, fragile and beautiful pop music.
If the formula works at its strongest during “Soda”, it wears thin when stretched across Electric Sunset’s 35 minutes. “Last Night on Earth” tries something slightly different with its vaguely disco-infused rhythm and key-centric melody, and “Palace” uses Zwart’s guitar more as a means to shoegaze-style atmospherics than as a tool for verse-chorus-verse structuring. Still, the album retreats into the dreaded realm of background music too often to maintain any consistent energy. Its polite melancholy would serve well for a spin or two on an overcast day, but it fails in its attempt to meet halfway between moody atmospherics and memorable pop songs.
“Morning City” begins promisingly enough, a firm bass drum thump starting things off with a dose of bombast, which—though slight—proves even shocking in the context of such a papery album. Unfortunately, Zwart slows the tempo and turns the mix down on every instrument, letting his sleepy vocals once again take center stage. It’s a mistake, one coming into even sharper light when he lets those bright guitars and insistent drum machines come back into the fold for the song’s outro.
“Infinity Avenue” suffers a similar fate, its rather catchy guitar hook forced into the background while Zwart tries unconvincingly to carry the song along on the back of his weak vocal melody. Zwart seems to know how to write a hook, and how to create mood and atmosphere. However, he either doesn’t have the confidence to allow his instrumentation to hold its own weight in his compositions, or he’s so enamored by the sound of his own (admittedly pretty) voice, that he can’t bear to push it lower in the mix. It’s a shame. The makings are here for a solid bedroom electro-pop album, but Zwart won’t let that come fully to light. Perhaps he’ll work with a producer next time.