The black-and-white photograph on the cover of Pulling Our Weight, the new EP from the Radio Dept., initially reveals only some slightly blurred tree branches and leaves. When you look a second time, you notice the tennis shoe beneath two rolled-up denim cuffs. The pants start upward before completely blending into the tree. It's a nice image for the album: the first listen might be unenlightening, but successive plays allow you to pick out new tracks or effects amid the blur. Like cuffed jeans, it's not a matter of innovation, but of feel.
In a state of flux since its 1995 inception, the Radio Dept. has just begun making a name for itself over the past year and a half or so. The buzz around all things Swedish hasn't hurt, but the strong songwriting by Johan Duncanson keeps the Radio Dept. distinct. The solidity of the band's core seems to be paying off, too. Duncanson's original partner Elin Almered is still around and Martin Larsson has been in place since 1998, which gives the trio enough time together to deal with fluctuating lineups (for example, Larsson's partner Lisa Carlberg is listed as the group's bass player on most of their materials, but is credited on Pulling Our Weight).
The Radio Dept. maintains a guitar-based dream pop sound throughout the disc, like Sweden's answer to Galaxie 500. Pulling Our Weight contains four mid-tempo tunes with a bit of guitar fuzz and one track almost upbeat enough to be called a rocker (but not quite). The shoegazer aesthetic pervades the songs, with the instruments frequently blended into one sound and the vocals sometimes tucked in without standing out. The producers have worked carefully on this music, and the result is a beautiful-sounding collection.
The disc opens with the title track and, uniquely on this album, a driving drum beat preceding the entrance of the other instruments. With its '80s influence, "Pulling Our Weight" has the poppiest feel of any sound here, and it's a good disc-opener. It's also the blandest music collected here, so you won't be disappointed when the second track starts. "We Climb the Wired Fences" develops around an ascending synth pattern. The guitar serves only to fill in spaces and to provide a subtle undercurrent of sound. The triplet pattern that develops in the second half of the song creates a moment of tension that's gradually resolved over the closing minute.
The middle and (soft)focus of the album, "I Don't Need Love, I've Got My Band" sounds like a daydreamer's anthem, if you can stretch your imagination enough to accept as anthemic something that's more reverie than reveille. The song opens with a quickly strummed guitar and some melodic picking before a series of snare hits and the lead guitar's entrance. The drumming on this track sounds like 90% of pop songs, but it's a serviceable beat for the increasing layers of guitars, each of which enters with more distortion than the one before it. The song builds with the lead guitar being preeminent even over the vocals. It reminds me of my thoughts as a bored undergrad, gradually drifting away from class and to whatever song was in my head. "I Don't Need Love, I've Got My Band" ends like any good afternoon mirage -- with a sustained bit of feedback. It's not a song you'll be humming in the shower, but it is one you wouldn't dare turn off.
The next song, "Someone Else" eases the tempo back down with a steady strum and an arpeggiated guitar line. This piece has more atmospheric touches than the rest of Pulling Our Weight, primarily due to sea-like washes and tasteful mallet work. If the previous song was an afternoon daydream, this one is a post-lunch nap. "The City Limit" follows by using the same formula we've come to expect. The slow introduction belies the slightly faster tempo that the song carries from the 40-second point to the end. This song's end placement shows a good sense of sequencing as we leave the EP with a slight emotional lift, but not with such a jump as to break the mood set by the earlier numbers.
It's a lovely album, and a fine piece of dream pop that varies from song to song without changing its ambience. The Radio Dept. paid a great deal of attention to the recording process. It's lulling and pleasing and nice in a complimentary way. You won't find much innovation on Pulling Our Weight, but you will find five very listenable songs and a good example of the craft involved in pop writing. You'd be best served listening to it through headphones, while sitting in a tree, close to napping.