Daniel Romano continues to confound expectations with yet another stylistic shift, this time into widescreen indie rock cut through with a cluttered, ramshackle charm.
There’s a certain creative restlessness that seems to be propelling Daniel Romano’s career at this point. Continually inventing and reinventing himself, he’s gone from iterant punk to rhinestone cowboy to psychedelic wanderer all in the space of a decade or so. And it’s not as though he were glomming on to prevailing musical trends; rather he seems to be following his idiosyncratic muse wherever it may take him. Because of this, you never really know what the next album from the Canadian tunesmith will hold. On his last, Romano seemed to dip his toes into Lee Hazlewood territory, pushing his voice to gravelly new depths. Before that, he looked out from the cover of Come Cry With Me with a vacant stare, wearing a Nudie-style suit, mustache and cowboy hat. For his latest, Modern Pressure, Romano once again defies expectation and zigs when one might well expect him to zag.
Any semblance of the country rock and psychedelia he had begun exploring seems to have largely been jettisoned in favor of a twitchy, nervy brand of indie rock perfectly suited to his increasingly nasal vocal delivery. Opening track “Ugly Human Heart Pt. 1” lays the groundwork for the new sonic terrain Romano sets out to explore this time around. While not wholly indicative of what’s to come, it does showcase his choked vocal presence and the enhanced production and instrumental risks he’s willing to take in order to find something new and different to pursue. The title track takes this to its logical extreme, building layer upon layer until the song threatens to explode by the arrival of the chorus. It’s a messy collection of competing ideas presented in muted Technicolor with an unapologetic grandiosity that will no doubt alienate those fonder of Romano’s country or punk phases.
Like Dylan before him, Romano seems to try on different voices from time to time to see which fits best and sounds furthest from his natural nasal whine. Here, too, he seems to have come to the conclusion that the best fit is that of his unaffected, reedy voice, one which manages to cut through the mix and still firmly anchor the widescreen indie rock he has now set his sights on. It’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach that, while not always revelatory, is never not boring.
Who would’ve expected the psychedelic sitar freakout that inexplicably ends “Roya” or the fuzzed-out T.Rex strut of “The Pride of Queens” that explodes into a layered chorus of crystalline harmonies or the Band-esque country shuffle and swirling organ of the woozy “Dancing With the Lady in the Moon” or the frantic tabla groove that underscores “I Tried to Hold the World (In My Mouth)”? This being consistently inconsistent makes for a bit of a rollercoaster ride in terms of a listening experience, but helps ensure there will never be a dull moment or lull in the proceedings.
Indeed, the closest musical touchstone to Romano may well be Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, an equally restless sonic explorer unconcerned with public or critical expectations. Like Tweedy and company, Romano, while the final say in each album’s creative direction, seems open to a wide range of ideas from equally sonically restless individuals looking to create something new and different, defying expectations along the way. And while Modern Pressure may not necessarily be Romano’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it certainly rewrites the possibilities for what may well come along next.
“Impossible Green” seems to fuse the disparate elements of his musical personality into one Frankenstein’s monster of a sound that has so much going on that it thrillingly careens forward with a ramshackle charm all its own. Similarly, the Laurel Canyon-via-Village Green bit of pastoral psychedelia that is “Jennifer Castle” follows a winding path in and around itself, never quite settling into one readily identifiable guise, ending with a cosmic country, heavily phased tag. Against the odds, it manages to work well within the context of the album, showing off a clear overabundance of ideas that, when patched together, manage to form a complex, if not always entirely coherent, whole.
To enjoy a new Daniel Romano album one needs to forget everything they know and perhaps like about the Daniel Romano present on the previous release and come at it with fresh ears and no expectations. Doing so opens up the myriad creative avenues Romano and company seem hell-bent on exploring for as long as they can, taking the music in new and different directions every time. Perhaps fearing creative stasis, Romano continues to wander in search of a sound that suits his interests, remaining an uneasily classifiable, yet highly enjoyable artist unafraid to alienate fans by following his creative urges, wherever they may lead.