Somewhere across the blinding vistas of theatricality, straddling the jagged edge of drama, you can catch a glimpse of the Standard—squint your eyes, because they’re not really residents of the area, only surveyors. There are pretensions out in them thar hills—histrionics, too—and the Portland, Oregon quartet points them out: androgynous Bowieisms hiding beneath a clammy boulder, nervous Byrne-ities trembling in the elaborate foliage, R.E.M. righteousness courting the speed of sound in the cloudless sky. The Standard looks, but it doesn’t touch. The rules of the land, like those of national parks, are respected; rock’s overindulgences are left to their natural preserve until they’re carelessly cloned by someone with less tact.
Cloning is for those determined to dominate with formula—those who do it all from memory leave that blueprint stuff in the wilderness. Besides, the Standard is an urban band and Albatross, its second album in as many years for Yep Roc, is city rock: cagey, serrated, nocturnal. Luminescent pianos flutter skyward, guitars cast taut nets, and Tim Putnam’s voice burrows inside itself, quaking under the pressure of the songs’ pregnant constructions. In more ways than one, the Standard is dramatic tension in search of a worthy epic.
A record of imposing and frequent beauty, Albatross never crosses the line into grandiose bombast. It withholds release and conclusion, and does so with utmost sincerity, as if it would never feel comfortable letting its insides spill out. It promises ridiculous self-indulgences but (wisely) never delivers. At times, the heightened tease can get a wee bit precious; the moody nervousness can trigger bouts of severe anxiety in the listener. (Not that the other option is any better; in the six-minute “In Waves”, when the band loosens its belt, its flailing doesn’t necessarily behoove it.) When the album sticks to its nail-biting anti-pop livewires, it’s riveting: the humbling altitude drop at the heart of the moody “Red Drop”; the primal drum pattern and sleigh bells that usher “Play the Part” into low-visibility terrain; the rare acoustic guitars in “Closed Rooms” that add a darker shade to the already autumnal tone; “A Curtain Drawn”‘s extended coda sending delay box Morse code to ‘80s apparitions. Meanwhile, Putnam’s lyrics—when they can be extracted from his mushy mumbling—make fumbling impressions in the dark, turning ambiguities into mantras, as if “Tell them all what they cannot say” becomes fact the moment it leaves his lips.
Unlike previous albums, the Standard decided to write and record Albatross simultaneously rather than obsess over its minutia. The result is a record that sounds mindful of its own steps—and, at times, afraid of its own shadow—but elegantly so; the more it trembles, the more confident it appears. The Standard keeps its choruses on a shorter leash than usual (in fact, traditional “choruses” are scarce within Albatross’ walls), instead banking on its songs’ inevitable pressure shifts. The dreamy pace of “Not Asleep”, which is nearly meditative, is interrupted by changeling piano chords and unexpected handclaps; “Red Drop” tosses a cautious B section into the quickly approaching path of the A section. They’re moments that one can both anticipate and be taken aback by—evidence that if the Standard learned anything from its dramatic studies, it’s that often the element of surprise is a perfect fit.