There’s always been a balance in the Rosebuds’ music between intimacy – the feeling that someone is sharing a secret with you – and artistic distance, like that same secret has been propped up on a stage to be analyzed as an object of study. Their songs seem to acknowledge the way music puts us at a remove – it’s Life Like, as one album title put it, but not life.
There’s a relationship between that countenance and their recurrent stylistic shifts, the sense that they’re continually shading their music from a different direction. The different shades are not just musical in nature (say, dancey synth-pop versus folksy roots music) but also settings and forms, with songs bearing resemblance to Southern gothic ghost stories; populist anthems; a lush, heightened romanticism.
On their sixth LP Sand + Silence, it strikes me that the duo has particularly fine-tuned that balance of intimacy/art, not by lessening either but by heightening both, within yet another lightly different shade of Rosebuds. I say “duo”, because it’s always a partnership between Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp. But this time around Crisp’s presence is harder to detect on the album because her singing voice isn’t evident; Howard’s voice is the main one all the way through. The album was produced with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who they’ve worked with in the past (on 2007’s Night of the Furies, for example).
That bit might draw the album extra attention, but it’s the songs and sound that will keep people coming back to Sand + Silence again and again. The album has an ‘acoustic’ feeling about it, not in a strict literal way but with an emphasis on piano, acoustic guitar and voice. There’s occasionally a ‘70s pop vibe; sleek, ‘sexy’. “Esse Quam Videri” gets almost Steely Dan-like with its version of white people throwing some R&B/funk/jazz notions into their pop. The title track has similar ambitions, and Howard shifts into desperate appeal-mode, almost preacher-like in his delivery.
If the Rosebuds always carry a sense of romanticism, it often seems heightened on Sand + Silence—in the sound, the lyrical pleas and in the sheer beauty of a song like “Give Me a Reason”, one of their loveliest calls to arms/love songs (a tradition going back to early tracks with titles like “Hold Hands and Fight”). It’s also a gentle entreatment, a come-on.
For all the atmospheric sexiness of the album, it also has some of their most energetic pop moments, almost bubblegum, like on “Mine Mine”. The ‘70s isn’t the only genre represented in style. “Looking For” has a twilight-time, almost doo-wop vibe. Though it sometimes makes me think of Jonathan Richman’s own walking songs, “Walking” also has almost a George Michael’s “Faith”-ish acoustic groove, yet also resembles an older-fashioned simple radio love song. The simplicity of its sentiment—“as long as your hand is in mind…”—is deceptive and representative of the Rosebuds.
The final song “Tiny Bones” has the demeanor of a tale-ender, wrapping up the story, yet it’s also the album at its most brittle. At the beginning you hear insect sounds. At the end, wind or perhaps falling rain. He sings about stillness outside, about porch lights, fire escapes, the moon and the pines. With those sounds, it feels like a set piece, yet it carries with it clear and visceral feelings that transcend any particular place, time or story; like the best of the Rosebuds’ music.