PopMatters Events Editor
2 Dec 2005: Bowery Ballroom New York
Looks can be deceiving, but this is ridiculous. Rogue Wave singer Zach Rogue has the stocky build of a Cali surfer and a bull neck that’s crying out for a hemp necklace. His golden locks have begun to crawl back on his scalp and he has the weathered almost greasy look of an ageing high-school football player.
I hate to harp on his appearance, but I guess I imagined the indie pop singer would be more like the Shins’ James Mercer, a slinky introverted type who isn’t much fun at parties. Zach Rogue seems like he’s the life of the party, so much so that it might make relating to his bedroom confessionals a bit difficult. Of course, if you close your eyes (and stop being a dick) it doesn’t have to.
Still, I’m glad I heard Zach Rogue’s records before seeing him live. A friend of mine did it the other way around and was so turned off by Rogue’s jam-bandleader aesthetic that he left the room before the band’s set. I’m not saying he was right, per se, but I understand his decision. Jam-bands are like indie-kid kryptonite.
Pretentious enough for you? Look, the truth is that I love Rogue Wave. As they take the stage, I’m just wondering if this visual persona is the reason why they’re not massively popular. Or maybe there’s another reason. The band’s recent release, Descended Like Vultures, employs the same tinny vocals and melodic guitar riffs as their debut, but ups the rock a notch, reaching into decidedly poppier terrain. While their first record was a lamenting foray into bedroom dream-pop, this one is a serious rocker with major mainstream potential. This change isn’t a bad thing, as the CD is packed with pop gems, but like the look this new shell may alienate those who would otherwise be wooed by the subtle harmonies and dark edges within.
The band’s opens with “Bird on a Wire”, the first track from the new record, plummeting into the chorus with a burning psychedelic guitar lick. Rogue’s vocals slide smoothly through the verses with a surprising clarity. At points he pulls out a pristine upper range, one usually obscured by vocal effects. Live the performance is different, a much slicker rendition than the CD version, which is much slicker than anything they ever did before it. I’m not poo-pooing it—he sounds awesome. I’m just saying that it’s less obtuse, less flawed, and that it doesn’t communicate the same subtle likeability.
As the band trots out more of its rockers, Rogue pulls this punch again and again, delivering the tunes with all the poise of a well-respected radio-rocker. Of course, some honest edge does remain. The notes themselves have been precisely chosen to elicit emotion, and communicate a certain haunting ambiance despite their straight-forward presentation. But, this said, my nervousness over the band’s future continues to grow.
With the occasional head bop, the band works through its two-record catalog, hitting highlights from Vultures as well as road-tested faves from their debut. These older songs are less razzle-dazzle, more quiet and controlled than the new album’s tracks. And Rogue is more reserved in their delivery. While he works his way through the haunting “Kicking the Heart Out” the bopping bassline merges impressively with the floating guitar riff, and his vocals are as hauntingly beautiful as ever.
Well, what I can hear of them. A guy in front of me has taken to talking during any song he doesn’t recognize—and that’s almost the entire old album. He does this throughout the set and into the encore, Rogue’s stunning solo rendition of “Postage Stamp World”. Pushed to the breaking point, several people turn and beg the man’s silence. He drunkenly refuses, loudly deriding them. It’s a shame, because behind him Rogue is quietly pouring his heart through sky-blue lights, delicately picking the notes on his guitar. He’s fighting an uphill battle and the last thing he needs is another distraction.
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