For all its psychedelic conceits, Future Clouds & Radar end up delivering an almost too modest sophomore effort that could've stood to drop another acid tab or two.
If nothing else, Peoria -- Future Clouds & Radar's follow-up to 2007's alternately fascinating and frustrating eponymous debut -- is an album that goes down smoothly. Despite the distinct air of whimsical psychedelia that permeates the entire disc, things never get too forcefully weird or overindulgent. No, this is a song cycle that's concerned more with the comforting sounds of beautifully arranged pop strings than it is with exploring the outer limits of musical expression. And this mature show of restraint -- the entire disc tops out at just over 34 minutes -- makes for a work that's as modest as it is enjoyable.
Of course, Robert Harrison (Future Clouds & Radar's chief architect and vocalist) doesn't play things too safe. Late album track "The Mortal" features a full-blown noise break that's carried by scratchy electronic textures, and closer "Follow the Crane" actually goes so far as to include an "I Am the Walrus"-esque sound collage -- albeit one that's held in place by some nice, soulful group vocals. But even these moments are a very controlled sort of chaos, all those found sounds and glitches billowed by an uncompromisingly gentle aesthetic.
In fact, you might find yourself wishing for something a little more dangerous. While Peoria is certainly enjoyable even at its most dull, there's very little here that Future Clouds & Radar can really claim as their own. While Harrison's arrangements aren't necessarily indebted to the Flaming Lips's brand of neo-psychedelia, his overall aesthetic definitely feels that way -- and he handles it with a far less pointed personality than the aforementioned band. Similarly, the gorgeous guitar pop of the album's first two cuts -- "The Epcot View" and "Old Edmund Ruffin" -- owes as much to contemporary indie sensations like the Shins as it does to the more dreamy, psyched-out edge of vintage British invasion. And then we have Harrison's vocals themselves: he has an undeniably charismatic, lazy delivery, but it's a delivery that overtly emulates Lennon right down to an affected accent (Harrison definitely didn't pick it up in his home state of Texas).
But, even when you can think of a handful of bands that use the same raw materials with more style, there's no denying how utterly pleasing this all sounds. Virtually every instrument on "The Epcot View" is placed with a studied precision, from the wistful tambourines in the chorus, to an understated mellotron, to some remarkably tasteful strings in the outro. Then the band goes ahead and shows that they're perfectly capable of pulling off the same polish in a different genre altogether with the garage freakout of "Eighteen Months", dirty guitar solos and horns drifting between speaker channels with purpose.
It's odd, then, that the end result of obvious talent put to good use is an album that feels compact, enjoyable -- but puzzlingly faceless. Maybe it's because we've heard this all before, maybe it's because the hooks drift away silently a few minutes after you reach the end, or maybe it's because Peoria is so unassumingly polite and easy to like that it fails to leave a lasting impression. Whatever the reason, you're left with something that, yes, goes down smooth as silk, but fails to leave much of an aftertaste, good or bad.