Radar Brothers: The Illuminated Garden

Back with a new lineup, slow-core trio delivers a mixed bag.

Radar Brothers

The Illuminated Garden

US Release: 2010-03-23
UK Release: 2010-03-23
Label: Merge Records

"I’m a deer in your headlights", singer Jim Putnam tells us as the start of this gauzy, languid record, "and I’m a bird in your gunsights." It’s an appropriate beginning to a record rife with animal imagery--song titles include "For the Birds", "Horses Warriors", "Chickens", and even "People"--and lyrics suggestive of self-doubt, bordering on self-loathing.

The Illuminated Garden is either the sixth record from Radar Brothers or their first, depending on your method of accounting: having released five previous records as Radar Bros, the band split, leaving Putnam to restock the rhythm section and carry on with new bassist Be Hussey and drummer Steve Treichel. Longtime fans had reason to wonder what this new incarnation would sound like.

The answer is frustrating. Album opener "Dear Headlights" sets the tone in many ways, with sweet harmonies and hushed lyrics delivered at a slow tempo; the song grows more affecting with repeated listens. But the followup, "Rainbow", struggles to find a tune and fails, while "For the Birds" brings a dirgelike feel to its arrangement of acoustic guitar and calliope-like tootling, reinforced through the plaintive lyrics: "Take me out of this town / Throw me from the bridge / Gray steel girders dance with me / The fish below, they smile." Despite its funereal qualities, the song gains momentum through layered vocals and swelling orchestration, and achieves a rare moment of transcendence. "Quarry" brings a slightly harder edge (but not too hard) and somewhat discordant tone to the guitars, while keeping the tempos unhurried and the mood introspective and vulnerable. "I want you, I need you", we are told. "Right now my life’s on a cereal box." Make of that what you will.

"Horses Warriors", midway through the album, picks up the pace a little, thank God. The lyrics evoke an insular world populated with non sequiturs and mystery: "There, I see you’ve got your pachydermal diary", Putnam sings early on, and, "But the horses and warriors are going to tear you apart, and take all you got / So you might as well sit down and watch the picture show." To the band’s credit, these head-scratchers are delivered with a degree of conviction that saves them from absurdity. The lovely harmonies help, too, as does a galloping beat reminiscent of a band of runaway thoroughbreds.

This is the highlight of the record, and the second half grows weaker with repeated listenings. "Chickens" bring us back in slow-tempo territory, where we dither for much of the rest of the disc. Vocals remain hushed, guitars gauzy, beats slow. There is a thin line between languid and lethargic, and Radar Brothers increasingly fail to stay on the right side of this divide.

The songs work best when the record’s prevailing tone of opiated dreaminess is punctured with moments of unease: "All the birds are just chickens anyway / So we washed the blood from our hands." Unfortunately, such moments are few. While "And the Birds" benefits from a layered upswell of orchestration in the latter half of the song, "Xmas Lights" kills the momentum with some truly wretched singing. By now, the repetitive formula--slow tempos, languid harmonies, shimmery guitar--is delivering diminishing returns. The album closer, “Radio”, despite the most energetic percussion on the record, just sort of putters out.

It remains to be seen whether this new lineup can find more tunes akin to "Dear Headlights" and “Horses Warriors”. If so, great. If not, then Radar Brothers may see its returns diminish even further.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.