Nature has played its part as man’s perpetual muse ever since pen was first put to paper. From Thoreau, to Emerson, to Whitman, poets and authors have all inked odes to the beauty that surrounds us. And despite its title, which recalls the close confines of school assemblies, The Radar Bros.’ fifth album also revels in the wide expanse of nature. A cursory glance at the track-listing reveals cold air, a warm rising sun, crows and cows, a dog named Ohio, fraternal rabbits, and hills of stone. The fact that every title alludes, in some fashion, to nature, the environment, or animals, is also indicative of the band’s organic sound. Like the images they evoke, the music they make is warm and welcoming, euphoric yet understated; a melancholic hue of layered instrumentation and lush introspection.
It’s a sound they summarize in a sepia-tinged line from the album’s penultimate track, “Brother Rabbit”. Amid languid drums and gently strummed guitar, front man, Jim Putnam, states: “I’m gonna wake up and drift slowly, softly into the day.” It may be a simple description of California life (the band is based in LA), but it also acts as an encapsulation of their musical raison de etré. Like a Pacific Ocean mist – or a lazy day for that matter - the Radar Bros. tend to roll in slowly, envelop you fully, and unfold leisurely. In essence, they sound the way a post-nap haze feels.
This ability to engulf the listener is an arena in which the Radar Bros. excel. Their albums are exercises in moods and aesthetics. Their songs blend together seamlessly, intermittently evoking disparate yet parallel ideas—a slow paced drive through the desert or a horizontal afternoon lounging in the yard. Like these activities, the Radar Bros.’ musical pay off is not always immediate. Even the addition of an extra guitarist – expanding the band to a four-piece – has done little to propel their pace. They seem quite content to stroll through life, leisurely releasing an album every three years, touring sporadically, and playing their own peculiar brand of countrified soul for the sleep deprived.
It’s a sound they’ve purveyed and perfected for the past 12 years. While the blueprint hasn’t changed too much – chiming, down-strummed guitars, intermittent piano arpeggios, rolling drums and high, echoed vocals are the main ingredients – the stark gaps that once cut through their clean and crisp instrumentation is fleshed out here for a richer, denser sound. This could be due, in part, to their relaxed recording process—the album was put to tape in Putnam’s home studio—or the extra instrumentation afforded by the personnel expansion.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Auditorium sounds slightly more muscular than their previous releases, kicking off, as it does, at a canter. “When Cold Air Goes to Sleep” opens with a stirring guitar riff and is as close to a ‘rock’ sound the band has come. By the middle of the track, though, everything drops away to reveal the Radar Bros. of old: just bells and Putnam’s plaintive vocals. A guitar re-enters, signposting the song back towards its swinging start and everything comes to an end with the sound of hymnal backing vocals.
This expeditious opening, however, is a misnomer of sorts. The constant comparisons to Pink Floyd are still apt as far as atmospherics go and you can continue to draw parallels to their now-defunct fellow Californians, Grandaddy. For the most part, though, Auditorium sounds like an AM radio melting in the California sun. The chorus to “A Dog Named Ohio” could easily be passed off as a long lost Carpenters’ couplet, while a Seventies sheen permeates throughout “Pomona”.
Best of all, though, are the songs that refine rather than reinvent the Radar Bros.’ blueprint. “Warm Rising Sun,” is a subdued yet sumptuously textural tune that shines as bright as its title. “Happy Spirits” chugs along on a lolloping lyrical cadence, and could fit neatly onto any of their previous releases, while the lucid “Lake Life” recalls their country affectations. Indicative of their idiosyncratic sound, however, is “Hearts of Crows”, which begins as a piano led lullaby and builds into a ballad of epic proportions. Each band member—Jeff Palmer, Senon Williams, and Steve Goodfriend round out the group—adds to the song as instruments drop in and out, heightening the swelling sentiments.
While the music is clear, the lyrics are often prone to misinterpretation. That’s not to say that they are indecipherable – certain phrases, sentences, and whole verses do appear – it’s just that they are often difficult to grasp, indicating a desire to create mood over meaning. When the lyrics are audible, they veer from the obtuse (“Steel days / Rubber nights / Coyote or cat calling”) to the sentimental (“Hearts of crows sing songs in your ears / Of wishes never granted in an empty dusty well.”) And, given the nature of the album’s song titles, they also hit upon environmentalism, stating that “The money stays green, but the water’s not blue,” during the sweeping “Warm Rising Sun”. On several occasions, they forego lyrics altogether, settling instead for subtle sounds such as the recurring “bom bom bom” of “Heart of Crows”, or the “la la la’s” of “Watching Cows”. It may seem like a lyrical cop-out, but it actually adds emotional weight to the songs.
And while the songwriting here is as strong as ever, it’s actually the subtle undertones that turn Auditorium into a textural delight. The bells that sneak into the stirring opening track, for example, or the singing saw that swings through “Lake Life”, and gives the country tune an eerie undertow. In “Pomona”, an achingly beautiful slide guitar expertly apes a violin, accentuating the lyrics and adding a longing lilt to Putnam’s pleas (“I beg for you to fight / Strong currents in the night / Pomona forgives you”). A mix of fuzzy organ and classical piano pre-empt the understated orchestral chorus of “Hills of Stone”, while jazzy percussion and an intermittent electronic drone propels “Watching Cows”.
Maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson was watching cows when he said: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Like nature, Auditorium is a patient album. It doesn’t pull you in with immediacy, but paws at you gently. Its vistas can sometimes seem commonplace, but something always pops up on the horizon, bringing focus to the vast musical expanse that elongates itself across the speakers. Wake up, put this album on, and drift slowly, softly into the day.
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// Notes from the Road
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