The Brother Kite has been quietly releasing pretty huge-sounding records for a number of years now. 2004’s eponymous debut and 2006’s Waiting for the Time to Be Right were thick sunbursts of sound, music as gauzy and atmospheric as Galaxie 500 but not nearly as haunted. The band plays in intricate layers, but on those records, they never forgot the immediacy of a clear vocal harmony or the gut-punch of straight-on power-pop energy.
It’s no surprise then that, with all the layers and bursting ideas of those records, that the band’s sound has gotten even bigger on Isolation. What is curious is how they’ve gotten bigger. There aren’t more layers here (And with all those organs and vocals and guitars, where would they fit them anyway?), but the ones they do have stretch out a good deal more than the previous records. In aiming for that titular feeling, the band has rendered all their warm, bunched-up orchestrations into sounds more spacious and overcast. The results sound weighted, and they build patiently, in some places avoiding the immediate hook in favor of a more insistent building.
This approach certainly plays to the feel of the record. As these instruments stretch out, as guitars and keys and rhythm section oppose each other instead of weaving together, an isolating feeling is imposed. Opener “Martyr for the Cause”, for example, stretches past six minutes and spends its first half dealing in negative space. Guitars ring out and reverberate; keys roll out a faint riff, but it’s mostly Patrick Boutwell’s echoing vocals — and he sounds more than ever like a bonified Beach Boy humming out into space. When it eventually works its way into a full-band stomp, the song achieves a subtle power, but it also sets up the formula for much of the record. There are plenty of slow-builds to be found on Isolation, feeling very much like an uphill climb.
Their most energetic moments in that climb, though, are still powerful. “The Scene is Changing” recalls all their poppy strengths from past records, but coated in the overcast sound of this record, it takes on a new, troubling feel. “Awakened” is a bright, propulsive respite from all the miasmic cool of the record, while “Young Pioneer” tightens up those cool layers into a shimmering tune that stretches the band’s sound to include the dusty Americana shuffle. “The Great Divide”, on the other hand, is the best example of the band cutting loose. Another six-minute number, this one starts with dreamy keys, eventually building and exploding in a towering, excellent guitar attack. Given all that space to work with, the guitars finally let loose, and the results are a true highlight in the record’s middle.
The trouble with other moments in the record — like the ever-stretching “Not Good Enough” or slow closer “The Pasture” — is that the uphill climb just takes too long. The Brother Kite often gets somewhere fruitful in these tracks, but there’s so much set-up here that sometimes the payoff can’t live up. Where their first two records found them building atmosphere while laying down catchy melodies, here they do the former and then the latter. While that may lend itself well to the themes of the record, it makes for some mid-tempo stalling as the record moves along. You have to give the band credit for trying out the other, darker side of their wide-open sound, but in the end, it’s the band’s strengths that get isolated from each other. And when left to their own devices too often — when the harmonies can’t mesh with the hooks, when the layers peel apart and knit together side by side — it becomes clear that they work better, and get more riled up, together.