The Brooklyn-based indie pop band manages to make a spirited fourth album without straying too far from formula, even when they should be busting out of it.
It's a wonder why Brooklyn, New York indie-poppers Rubblebucket aren't significantly more popular. Since 2008 they have been pumping out sprightly hook-driven dance rock, vitally assembled from decades of afrobeat and Carribean-flavored North American pop that indie superstars like Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire have only more recently begun to implement to great success. It's become a tried-and-true formula by now, but Rubblebucket lodged themselves into that mode early on and with fervor, blasting through as many bright horn licks and big mobile choruses as they could before going blue-faced and cross-eyed. For six years they have made a name for themselves by sounding like a midsummer Brooklyn block-party, and knowing the current tone of mainstream indie pop -- from Grouplove to Passion Pit to Tegan and Sara -- that's a sound that should be killing it.
Survival Sounds, the band's latest album, is yet another jaunty, expressive collection of optimistic indie pop. It finds the band working in the same mode they've always worked in, albeit sounding much more content than they probably should sound. Survival Sounds is more cohesive as a unit than any of the band's previous records (except perhaps the excellent Oversaturated EP), but because it works so well as an album, it misses out on having any immediately obvious singles like Omega La La's "Came Out of a Lady". "Carousel Ride" and "Sound of Erasing" are the selected singles, and rightfully so considering that they're as powerful, catchy, and dynamic as anything on the record, but they still sound best in context, insulated by other funky dance numbers and slow jams.
"Carousel Ride" builds into its arena-huge ending patiently and meticulously, juxtaposing that booming chaos with singer Kalmia Traver's gentle twee frustration in the whisper-quiet verses when she sings, "Get myself fat / Get myself thin / I'm trotting through life with occasional wins / Thought it'd be cool to calm my wits," until the chorus spikes up and she shouts, "Round and round and round I go / Hoping for a miracle." It's not as if the band has nothing to say or aren't articulate enough to express it, and it's certainly not the first time that an indie band has tackled twenty-something uncertainty, so where's the credit?
Maybe it has something to do with the aforementioned formula pervasive on this and all Rubblebucket records. Does the band not stray from routine enough? "Shake Me Around" breaks up its colorful ska groove and sing-along chorus with a manic, explosive guitar solo that's more overdriven feedback than anything; "Young and Old" is a smooth '80s pop ballad that expands its scope by gliding into an elegant and lush key change near the end of the song. Survival Sounds needs more of these surprise moments where Rubblebucket explore the depths of their sonic ability; the album's scale is tragically narrow for how much the band excels at rattling their own cage.
Even this far into their career, Rubblebucket have yet to release an essential or defining record, something to give them a guaranteed featured spot on global music blogs and web magazines for the next five years at least. With each release they nudge their approach ever so slightly in a different direction, hoping to find the illusive sweet spot where their sound might connect with broader audiences, but it's not enough. There's a wealth of talent here, and after four albums and three EPs, the band has built up a catalog dynamic and varied enough that it should count for something. Unfortunately, until they catch that spark in action and nurture it into a flame, and until they embrace the unknown at every opportunity, they may only continue to be undeservedly neglected. Survival Sounds is a good addition to an already solid discography, but it just won't push Rubblebucket over the edge into indie rock royalty where they belong.