California Wives came together in Chicago four years ago as a band consisting of Dan Zima, Hans Michel, Joe O’Connor and Jayson Kramer. In the intervening years they played extensively around the city, toured a little and recorded an EP before signing to Vagrant Records. Now, nearly a full election cycle later, we have their full-length debut, the ambitiously titled Art History.
The album is awash in ‘80s synthesizers and warm, fuzzy guitars that practically wrap you into a blanket of soothing sounds. The vocals are sung with an in an urgent, yet hushed, falsetto that blends euphoniously with the music to create swells of sound that can be downright narcotic. There are moments when they break this pattern such as with the comparatively fiery guitar work on “Better Home” or mild stomp of “Purple”. Such exceptions however, mostly prove the rule.
Make no mistake; these are songs for the young. There’s a wide-eyed sense of optimism and possibility permeating the record which calls to mind the feeling of returning to one’s second semester of college – young, independent and no longer frightened. For the California Wives, the world is a bright shiny object ready to be explored. Indeed, Art History is destined to be played on many a sun-dappled road trip or night out in the city. You can picture the scores of Instagrams that will be taken with these songs blasting in the background. Full of neck-straining nods to ‘80s New Wave, Art History is like a John Hughes soundtrack for the 21st century.
If you’ve been following California Wives, you’ll already recognize most of the album’s high points from their Affair [EP] or the “Tokyo” single (which isn’t a bad thing) and if you haven’t, you’re really in for a treat. “Blood Red Youth” starts the album and sets the tone for the rest of the record with its restrained pacing, bursts of bright guitar, hushed vocals and quiet optimism. “Purple” shows the band expanding their sound with stadium dynamics cribbed from Phoenix or the Killers. “Tokyo”, meanwhile evokes Oriental wanderlust on top of a bed of sunny synth and buzzy guitar. The rest of Art History follows this template – everywhere you look there are lights, colors, big cities and the sort of preliminary life lessons learned by people in their early twenties.
I don’t say any of this to denigrate the songs – music that makes you feel young an optimistic is never a bad thing. At their best, California Wives sound like an audio recreation of Ponce de Leon’s fountain. The problem with Art History isn’t that California Wives don’t know how to write good songs. It’s that they don’t know how to write different kinds of good songs. It’s music that’s all soft surfaces and curves with no real terrain to latch on to. It’s an album whose inability to sustain interest demands that it either be cherry-picked or played in the background.
On Art History, California Wives are, at times shooting for a grand sweeping album in the vein of M83’s Saturdays = Youth but they don’t yet have the musical vocabulary or songwriting chops to fully reach those highs. Instead, what we’re given is a padded-out version of their debut EP that doesn’t always benefit from the additional length. Take the record for what it is—a breezy, fun but ultimately unfulfilled attempt at an electro-pop statement album. Keep your eyes peeled to see where California Wives goes from here because so far they’ve given us a lot to be excited about … and maybe a little bit to skip.