Rogue Wave, like so many independent pop artists, is a collection of lucid and emotive memories in the minds of his listeners. Maybe it was the gut-crunching “California” heard first on a downtown A-train, or “Eyes” in the midst of a perfectly terrible break up, or “Lake Michigan”, the lead track of a brave little mixtape sent to a light-eyed girl in Montana when it might as well have been shot into space. Mastermind Zach Rogue possesses the sort of sheepish every-man charm that always manages to democratize his pain and minor triumphs: his successes seem so simple, they are easy to claim, and his terrors so common they are practically adoptable. But success and failure of this kind must remain small, diorama-sized, or risk losing the listener’s window in. After a troubling and bizarre fourth LP, Permalight, for Bushfire, the band returns, and not successfully, to these college radio roots, the power of the small idea, on their latest LP, Nightingale Floors.
This business of return is hard work, a labor to recover some more modest and effective version of yourself before you used auto-tune on your fourth studio album. Rogue finds himself in the act of immediate and evocative nostalgia from the album’s opening sitar on “No Magnatone” (in fairness, it easily could be pedal-effect guitar) to the mobile and buzzing single “College”, noting the limits and power of this type of project, singing, “You can’t go on kicking yourself”. It’s as charming a college radio song as you’ll hear in 2013, a category with real boundaries in these days of sandpaper judgments and grand collective boredom. Rogue finds himself in earnest fine form again on “Siren’s Song”, a Petty-indebted rock joint that offers the singer’s brittle tenor edging toward insouciant but feeling not a bit mendacious. These highway down-stroke guitars reemerge on “S(a)tan” to considerably less impact. The highest of high points on Nightingale Floors are contained in its opening four tracks.
The small songs, or what used to be Rogue’s wheelhouse, fall flat on both occasions. “Without Pain” and “The Closer I Get” represent the new Rogue Wave, borderline pedantic meditations with little lasting impact. There are no windows into Zach Rogue’s complex inner workings, no ability to engage his emotional geography. If Rogue was once a grand cartographer, he now sends trite postcards from the road. Worst of all is the bloated closer, “Everyone Wants To Be You”, where Rogue weaves his way through a hacked Ryan Adams chord progression and a kick-snare that sounds like it overdosed on cold medicine. Continuing a strange habit, the chorus is the title, a fact that never bothered on old Rogue Wave standards but here feels unimaginative and especially narrow.
A college professor of mine, one of those indefatigable collegiate memories that fascinate Rogue here, once complained that Aristotle’s philosophical house was far more ornate than Plato’s, but he provided no door for the reader, only small windows to look inside. In essence, you could look but never enter. It struck me as especially profound, even while hardly grasping the impact. Rogue’s talent was always contained in crafting these sorts of portals, rich little slices of a decorative and sometimes terrible interior. We never needed a door, but the windows sure were nice.
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