California Wives: Art History

California Wives don't arrived fully formed on their debut album, but they show signs of greatness.

California Wives

Art History

Label: Vagrant
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: 2012-10-02
Online Release Date: 2012-09-25

California Wives came together in Chicago four years ago as a band consisting of Dan Zima, Hans Michel, Joe O’Connor and Jayson Kramer. In the intervening years they played extensively around the city, toured a little and recorded an EP before signing to Vagrant Records. Now, nearly a full election cycle later, we have their full-length debut, the ambitiously titled Art History.

The album is awash in ‘80s synthesizers and warm, fuzzy guitars that practically wrap you into a blanket of soothing sounds. The vocals are sung with an in an urgent, yet hushed, falsetto that blends euphoniously with the music to create swells of sound that can be downright narcotic. There are moments when they break this pattern such as with the comparatively fiery guitar work on “Better Home” or mild stomp of “Purple”. Such exceptions however, mostly prove the rule.

Make no mistake; these are songs for the young. There's a wide-eyed sense of optimism and possibility permeating the record which calls to mind the feeling of returning to one's second semester of college – young, independent and no longer frightened. For the California Wives, the world is a bright shiny object ready to be explored. Indeed, Art History is destined to be played on many a sun-dappled road trip or night out in the city. You can picture the scores of Instagrams that will be taken with these songs blasting in the background. Full of neck-straining nods to ‘80s New Wave, Art History is like a John Hughes soundtrack for the 21st century.

If you’ve been following California Wives, you’ll already recognize most of the album’s high points from their Affair [EP] or the “Tokyo” single (which isn’t a bad thing) and if you haven’t, you’re really in for a treat. “Blood Red Youth” starts the album and sets the tone for the rest of the record with its restrained pacing, bursts of bright guitar, hushed vocals and quiet optimism. “Purple” shows the band expanding their sound with stadium dynamics cribbed from Phoenix or the Killers. “Tokyo”, meanwhile evokes Oriental wanderlust on top of a bed of sunny synth and buzzy guitar. The rest of Art History follows this template – everywhere you look there are lights, colors, big cities and the sort of preliminary life lessons learned by people in their early twenties.

I don’t say any of this to denigrate the songs – music that makes you feel young an optimistic is never a bad thing. At their best, California Wives sound like an audio recreation of Ponce de Leon’s fountain. The problem with Art History isn't that California Wives don't know how to write good songs. It's that they don't know how to write different kinds of good songs. It's music that's all soft surfaces and curves with no real terrain to latch on to. It's an album whose inability to sustain interest demands that it either be cherry-picked or played in the background.

On Art History, California Wives are, at times shooting for a grand sweeping album in the vein of M83's Saturdays = Youth but they don't yet have the musical vocabulary or songwriting chops to fully reach those highs. Instead, what we're given is a padded-out version of their debut EP that doesn't always benefit from the additional length. Take the record for what it is -- a breezy, fun but ultimately unfulfilled attempt at an electro-pop statement album. Keep your eyes peeled to see where California Wives goes from here because so far they've given us a lot to be excited about … and maybe a little bit to skip.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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

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