The ambition of Pretty Escape is admirable, it but also reveals a gap between what the band is and what they seem to want to be.
Norwegian five-piece Deleted Waveform Gatherings has created a new album as unruly as the band's name. Pretty Escape is a 20-song, 73-minute pop record: an overall epic collection of music. Luckily, though, like the band's previous three albums, the album may be as long as their name, but the sound isn't nearly as difficult. The band, and frontman/songwriter Oyvind Holm, adroitly crafts sweet melodies, dripping with just enough haze to warm them up without tipping into blurry obscurity.
That hazy feel goes in different directions on their new record. Pretty Escape was originally conceived as a double-album but was instead turned into one massive whole. To listen to the record, though, you can't hear a double-album from one band emerging from all of this. Instead, it feels like two distinctly different albums from two different bands. Deleted Waveform Gatherings split their sound into two camps -- psych-pop and roots rock -- on this album, and it makes for a strangely paced record, even as it creates a compelling picture of a band trying to mesh two distant poles in its sound, with admittedly mixed results.
As a rootsy rock band, Deleted Waveform Gatherings can manage a dusty strength. "Farmer Abe" is a solid bit of jangling rock, with ringing chords and lean percussion speeding up their sound after the dreamy feel of predecessor "Time Passes Slowly". "Brand New Funky Hairdo" amps up the crunchy guitars a bit but still comes out with a similarly ragged feel. "Alone Down Here" has more twang than those, but it aims for the same kind of bar-band immediacy. These songs are all solid enough -- there's nothing here to put you off -- but they also feel like they don't quite fit. Or, rather, they feel like they fit okay, but like they're borrowed clothes. The fuzzy harmonica on "Alone Down Here" feels forced, as are the Skynyrd-esque riffs on "Tear Off the Chains". On Pretty Escape, this half of their sound feels decent but underdone. Holm and company are, at their best, a distinct and lively pop act, but these moments feel too anonymous, too by the numbers, and as the long record wears on, they start to blur together.
This is especially true because when they get hazy here, dipping into a sun-drenched pop closer to The Byrds or The Clientele -- it doesn't hurt that Holm's voice falls somewhere between Roger McGuinn and Alasdair MacLean -- they really come alive. Opener "Time Passes Slowly" is a bittersweet and affecting opener, drawing lines to the overcast pop of standouts like "Even Though She's Gone" and the dusty beauty of "Another One of Those". These songs give us room to feel out the textures this band is so good at, digging into Holm's plainspoken but emotive lines. He can be deeply lovelorn ("Even though she's gone, she still moves the air around here") or bitterly hurt ("Congratulations babe, you kept me on my feet") without feeling melodramatic. These are the moments where the band's distinct personality shines through and Pretty Escape grabs your attention.
There are a few moments where these two poles clash, particularly on the epic psych-rock of "Karma Phala" and the lean charge of "Porcelain Prisoner". For the most part, though, they stay separate and one clearly outshines the other. Their psych-pop side shows them stepping into the light, while their rootsy side has them hiding behind borrowed sounds they haven't quite made theirs yet. There's nothing here to suggest Deleted Waveform Gatherings aren't the sturdy pop band they've been for a while now; it's just that the ambition of Pretty Escape, admirable though it is, reveals a gap between what the band is and what they seem to want to be. We, the listeners, get stuck in the middle.