Long-running trio doubles in size and makes their best album in years.
Bands change their names — or don't change them — for any number of reasons. Mark Kozelek created Sun Kil Moon, even though most of the band carried over from the last incarnation of the long-running Red House Painters, at least partially because he figured the new name would attract more press attention then yet another album from a fairly low profile band. The members of Joy Division couldn't go on under that name after Ian Curtis hung himself (although, if they had and the name on Power, Corruption & Lies was Joy Division, would we think in 2013 that they made the wrong choice? often, these things seem inevitable only in hindsight). And then you have outfits like the Fall, which become almost more an idea than a name as person after person (and style after style) cycles through the band. Those bands are often more centered around one strong personality than true collectives (after all, nobody suggests that actual solo artists rename themselves just because they get a new band).
And of course, it's much more common to just keep on keeping on, which might suggest part of why Radar Brothers mk II have kept the band's old name. Well, to an extent; four of their albums are credited to Radar Bros., but they seem to be sticking with Brothers recently (possibly related to the rise of "bro" as an epithet for a particular kind of odious male subject?). Maybe the name issue never even came up, but it's clear from the first rousing chords here that we're dealing with a new beast here, even if it goes by the same guise. For much of their history, Radar Brothers were the trio of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim Putnam (guitarist for Medicine, among other things), bassist Senon Gaius Williams, and drummer Steve Goodfriend. That band's slow-motion, shoegaze-tinged Americana could be incredibly successful (particularly on 1999's out of print The Singing Hatchet, a lost classic if there ever was), but by the time of 2008's Auditorium they seemed to have locked into the kind of holding pattern that often settles onto bands several albums in.
In the past, Radar Brothers could evoke the somehow menacing crawl of a car crash in slow motion (helpless crash test dummies and all), but they had started to sound more like the stillness of a becalmed lake instead. Putnam got a shot in the arm on 2010's The Illustrated Garden after Williams and Goodfriend departed, with Be Hussey and Stevie Treichel stepping in instead. But for Eight (the band's, yes, eighth album), Putnam's expanded beyond a core trio for the first time; Radar Brothers are now six men strong, and whether that helped cause a resurgence in Putnam's songwriting or just corresponded to it Eight still benefits. The opening "If We Were Banished" might be the most shoegaze-y thing they've done in a while, a thick, lush wash of guitars overlaying the melody lilting along with Putnam's voice, and it's immediately arresting. The pedal steel-led "Couch" is the happiest Putnam has sounded in years, repeating "I'm wearing the clothes you bought me / And I'm singing the songs you taught me" like a love song, although given Putnam's great skill with creeping unease and Lynchian depictions of normality, you may or may not want to try and parse out the other lyrics.
Radar Brothers always worked just fine as a trio, and there was always the risk that doubling the band's size could lead to things feeling overstuffed or that compositions would remain more suited to a smaller-scale approach. But from the massive, soaring refrain at the heart of "Disappearer" to the terse, compactly rocking "House of Mirrors" to the blocky, fuzzed-out piano underpinning the brief "Bottle Song", Eight manages to sound more fully fleshed out and muscular than previous Radar Brothers releases without ever making their previous work sound spindly. There's also more range here; both the hushed, playful "Change College of Law" and the widescreen, echoed despair of "Ebony Bow" aren't quite like anything Radar Brothers have done before, even as the songs in more familiar modes like the foreboding "Horse Down" still work wonderfully. And thankfully Putnam and co. resisted the urge to sprawl in any way except sonically; at a trim 43 minutes with no filler, Eight is the first end-to-end satisfying Radar Brothers album since 2002's And the Surrounding Mountains and is probably tied with The Singing Hatchet as their best (I say probably because I've lived with and loved one of those two albums for a decade, and the other one just came out).
I remember reading a review of the first Radar Brothers album years ago that compared them to the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd. They didn't, and don't, sound much like either band, Putnam's high, curdled choirboy voice and the band's cosmic reach aside, but the comparison kind of made sense. If you imagine rock music as a topography and wander out somewhere between where those two acts would be situated (far away from each other), you might eventually have hit the band's early work. Like a lot of bands, with or without name or lineup changes, Radar Brothers have only gotten more assured in their sound, more like themselves, with the passing years, and for a while it looked as if that progression might have ended with them in a cul de sac; far from the worst thing to happen to a band, and far more renowned bands have wound up there. But with the gorgeous, invigorated Eight Radar Brothers have opened up new avenues for the band, especially if they keep this expanded roster, which fleshes out the songs in new and interesting ways. From their old place on that map the band has set out to new vistas, and Eight shows once again that they're well worth following.