[17 June 2013]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
At first, nearly everything about Golden Age, the sophomore album by the Philadelphia-based indie rockers Grandchildren, screams nostalgia. There’s the name of the band itself, which places them within the framework of patrilineage. Golden Age is, as a recent charming film told us, the buzzword for those wishing for the old days. The instrumentation throughout this LP often relies on conventions that hearken back to previous decades, in particular the heavy usage of Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies throughout. Indie rock’s preoccupation with the past is no secret, as the Urban Outfitters fashion archetype demonstrates, but for all of the backward-looking Grandchildren’s aesthetic hints at, it avoids getting caught up in twee retroism. When the group is firing on all cylinders, it’s utilizing every possible aspect of its six-person lineup to create music that’s quite bombastic and even epic.
But whereas much of indie rock tries to sound epic while remaining stripped-down and underplayed, Grandchildren aren’t afraid to bring out the 21 guns and actually fire them. The band’s 2010 debut Everlasting, for all of its Animal Collectivisms, hinted at this level of fanfare but never quite got there. Opening cut “Sunrise” proves that while Grandchildren haven’t shaken off the ghost of that band (also evidenced by the Lennox-esque vocal of “No Way Out”), it’s at least aspiring for something more than for aping indie’s upper echelons. After a mallet-like synth opener, the song gradually builds into interchanges of airy vocals, clapped beats, and a coda that majestically kicks the album off. From there, Golden Age segues into its two strongest tracks, “Golden Age” and “End Times”. Both songs feature some well-honed orchestrations that amplify what could otherwise be fairly rote pieces. “End Times” achieves this larger-than-life effect rather well; its booming horns make it ideal as background to a (probably subversive) war film. Rarely does one get the opportunity for a Hans Zimmer-like break in an indie LP, but Grandchildren clearly have more than a few risks up its sleeve.
It’s a shame, then, to see the rest of Golden Age spin off into divergent, less interesting directions for the remainder of its runtime. There’s a smattering of diverse sounds on the rest of the LP: “No Way Out” abandons a fairly cool barroom piano sound after only utilizing it for the first minute, “Forward” drops a rhythmically confusing trip-hop beat, and “Rain Down” is defined by an angelic layering of vocal harmonies. The altering of vocals is one of the record’s key traits, which is a shame, given that the majority of the time, it’s the instrumentation that makes Grandchildren an engaging listen. While the Animal Collective comparative is a relatively decent match, it is only insofar as the similarity between their singers is so strong. This is similar to the pigeonholing of Muse as Radiohead worshippers; Thom Yorke and Matt Bellamy do have a lot in common vocally, but anyone who thinks the guys who made The 2nd Law are out to make the next Kid A has to be absolutely mad. Were it an instrumental band, Grandchildren might actually be a lot more interesting—troubling though such a counterfactual might be. It’s nice to see a group that could so easily get stuck in the quagmire of nostalgia worship skillfully avoid it, but when it comes at the cost of copping some of indie rock’s been-there-done-that vocal techniques, the music suffers as a result.