Zach Rogue's band returns with a set of sunny, California-approved pop, but at what cost?
Rogue Wave, originally a Bright Eyes-style one man band helmed by Zach Rogue with assistance from Nathan Petty and Alex Sterling, has experienced an interesting and personally disappointing progression over the past six years. Shortly after getting caught up in the post-Garden State/O.C. wave of indie pop, Rogue decided to recruit a full band and fill out his sound. While the result, 2005's Descended by Vultures, didn't fail to entertain, it felt like a less unique representation of Rogue's songs. In his attempt to create a bigger picture, he lost some of the clarity in his songwriting and arrangements that made his debut such a light, enjoyable summer listen.
Whether Rogue noticed this or not, he and his band left Sub Pop for Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records and recruited longtime Yo La Tengo producer Roger Moutenot to clean up the rough edges. Unfortunately, fan reaction was mostly mixed and many of my biggest fears felt like they were being confirmed; Rogue was just more interesting as a solo performer.
Permalight arrives in 2010, then, as somewhat of an axis point for the group's storyline. Rogue Wave has been a band for most of its lifetime, but unfortunately they seem to be sinking further and further into typical California-style rock idioms. For example, "Stars and Stripes" and "Good Morning" carry dance beats courtesy of drummer Pat Spurgeon that are completely alien to past Rogue recordings. In fact, "Good Morning" applies drum machines rather than a drum kit itself, further pushing the track into dance floor territory.
Meanwhile, the tragic death of former bassist Evan Farrell led to the recruitment of Patrick Abernethy, whose previous experience includes being a touring member of Beulah. Abernethy was then followed in the band by Cameron Jasper, whose basslines have a very noticeable post punk influence here, causing many of the songs to bounce off the walls with energy and good vibes. That all sounds nice, but the problem is that all these changes have effectively made Zach Rogue a bit player in his own group. It's not until "Fear Itself" that we hear anything resembling Rogue's old fondness for vocal melody and simple, pop-inflicted arrangement. It's also the first time his voice truly rings out clear over the music.
Songs like "Fear Itself", "Right With You" (forgiving its banging, obnoxious drum track) and the throwback acoustic number "I'll Never Leave You" (the album's standout cut) are the sorts of songs that just leave one wondering why Rogue feels the need to turn his band into a Snow Patrol style anthem band. His most enjoyable moments come in more personalized, intimate surroundings and I just can't get over his embrace of so many qualities that currently feel generic and stale in indie rock. Eventually, Permalight comes down to an unfortunate instance of a band whose struggled to feel completely unique from the very beginning resigning from that struggle and embracing the built-in audience for sunshine rock that a label like Brushfire can supply.
Overproduction ultimately damns this record as much as anything, with everything cranked to 11 and Rogue's voice constantly reverbed. Permalight sounds like a band who's incredibly eager to impress, which wasn't how Rogue emerged on the scene, a singer of simple pop songs. Permalight is thus the weakest release in Rogue's discography, the first time it feels like his personality is secondary to his band. Rogue Wave feels more like a true band than they did on Descended Like Vultures (I admit to spending practically no time with Asleep at the Gates, their previous album), but they've lost much of what made them entertaining in the transition. As he says on the final song, "Now we're born again and all that remains is all that reminds us of the sound you've always known." In their shift to something else, they have become something that was already there, and lost what they had in the first place.