There was a time in the mid-2000s when Aqueduct seemed prime for a breakthrough. I Sold Gold, the Seattle-by-way-of-Tulsa band’s debut LP, flirted with the polite sensibilities of Barsuk labelmates Death Cab for Cutie. For a moment it looked like Aqueduct might just join them in the limelight. Like any near-breaking indie act at the time, they enjoyed prominent song placement on the soapy teen drama The O.C. and built a steady buzz through a healthy dose of online press. But by the time the band followed up with their 2007 LP, Or Give Me Death, the moment had passed.
Now Aqueduct returns with Wild Knights, their first official release in eight years. Bandleader David Terry seems to have picked up more or less where he left off, offering a slice of hook-driven indie pop that traffics in huge, infectious arrangements that recall a very particular moment in the recent history of alternative pop music. Album opener “The Petrified Forest” is a suitably unsubtle announcement of the band’s return, with its towering live drums (courtesy of Centromatic’s Matt Pence) and pulsing synth pads propelling the song through its pithy runtime. Terry’s clean and gleaming piano cuts through the wash of synthesizers — possibly the most identifiable feature of the band’s sound — as he repeats a puzzling opening refrain: “Gonna run through the jungle with my head in a bag.”
Welcome back to the wacky world of 2000s lonely white-guy indie pop. If you weren’t too annoyed by it the first time around, you’ll likely enjoy this 36-minute trip down memory lane. That’s not to suggest that there is nothing on Wild Knights that someone who missed out on that moment wouldn’t enjoy, or that there’s nothing here that other artists in that genre haven’t already offered. In fact, there are elements of this record, like the two that came before it, that are done significantly better than most of the band’s peers. The elegant production, for instance, brings together acoustic and electronic instruments in a smart and textured package that recalls the best of Electric Light Orchestra or Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips.
Songs like “Legend of Kage” stick out as the best moments on Wild Knights. With its auxiliary synths that support rather than distract from its rich, bright melody, “Kage” deviates ever so slightly from the sometimes-rigid formula honored by the rest of the LP. That formula, which depends heavily on David Terry repeating lyrical phrases for effect while electronics skitter around muscular drums, begins to wear on songs like album centerpiece, “Falling Down.” In this tame-to-a-fault slow jam, Terry repeatedly insists “I’m always falling down and I’m never getting up,” over a somber saxophone that, while a good idea on its face, never seems to do much.
Aqueduct doesn’t do “dark” or “intense” particularly well — although they take a few swings at it here — because their natural mode is too buoyant to make the threat credible (“Let’s go out and see what kind of trouble we can get in,” Terry sings on “Street Fighter”, but there’s just no way the trouble could be that bad). Crucially, though, Wild Knights doesn’t suffer from a lack of ideas. It frequently has some good ones, even. For its occasional misfires, the band’s sporadic willingness to try something new goes a long way. At the very least, this is an affable return from a perfectly good band. It might be of an era, and it might not always hang together perfectly, but it’s competent and comfortable, and will remind many listeners what they liked about Aqueduct in the first place.