The Rosebuds have long threatened to be the best, and smartest, pure pop band going, and with Life Like they take a big step towards becoming exactly that.
In 2007, the Rosebuds gave us perhaps the darkest dance record of the year with Night of the Furies. It was a record that encapsulated a moment of frustration in the middle of a crumbling presidency and a failing quagmire of a war. In trying to capture that darkness and frustration, the band tapped into the blacker sides of '80s new wave, relying on drum machines and synths to render the cold indifference they saw happening around them everyday. It was a record full of their knockout choruses and standouts like "Get Up, Get Out" and "My Punishment for Fighting". But, in seeking out the album's bleak atmosphere, they let songs run on too long, and made faux-strings and other retro elements cornerstones of the songs instead of light-touch flourishes.
But now, a year and half later, we see that Night of the Furies helped lead the Rosebuds towards their new album, Life Like. And with this album coming just before a new presidential election, there are plenty of things to be hopeful about. As a citizen, there is hope for change. But, on the smaller scale, if you're a Rosebuds fan, there is hope for the band to break out in a big way. Life Like is their most accomplished album to date, and one that combines all of their strengths into a brilliant half-hour of power pop. The album has the immediacy and pop-bliss of Make Out, the perfect texturing and emotional depth of Birds Make Good Neighbors, and the great sense of atmosphere and cohesion they found on Night of the Furies.
Life Like is surely the light at the end of the Furies tunnel, but it hardly all positive. "I know a clean way out", Ivan Howard sings to start the title track, setting into motion an album full of songs about fleeing from places, and rarely heading to them. The brilliant "Border Guards" uses acoustic guitars, high vocal harmonies, and keening keyboards to capture the feel of a dusty desert town. You can feel yourself in the car, driving fast down a desolate road in a border town. The thud of the drums pushes the track along, steady and insistent as the road lines illuminated in the headlights. Howard closes the songs with the dejected refrain, "Goddamn the border guards", as cool as the desert air, the border itself presumably disappearing in his rearview mirror.
Kelly Crisp, the other half of the Rosebuds, has her finest showing on this album, too. "Cape Fear", a cautionary tale about a mythically huge catfish, slyly builds to a breakdown of gliding guitar lines as Crisp's voice falters and fades beautifully into the mix. She drives the chorus of "Bow to the Middle" home, leading the rabble through a singsong shout in the best political dance number you'll hear all year.
But regardless of who's singing, Howard and Crisp come together beautifully track-to-track. "Nice Fox" is a bouncy acoustic number, a sort of call- and-response between Howard and a chorus of singers. Each line Howard sings is in warning to the fox. Not to cross the busy road. Not to bother the owl in the tree. Not to live in that musty barn. The chorus follows behind his lines with the cutting, "And it don't mean nothing at all". Because it doesn't. Because we know the fox won't listen. That he'll go where he goes, and he'll meet a bad end. Which he does in the song. But after Howard's voice quits out, and the chorus continues, we realize it does mean something. It means something to Howard and the song's simple beauty ends up meaning something to us.
The album ends with "In the Backyard", another late-night song where the narrator seems to be a child, singing about how the preacher will come at night, into their backyard, and dig to find a buried Ouija board. All the while, the narrator and his siblings are told to fear the game by the adults around them. But all the while, they keep hearing the preacher return at night to dig holes in their lawn. His digging is clearly the fearful image ingrained in them, the one that will cause them more worry than any board game could.
The Rosebuds start Life Like by singing "I'm wild but I'm not free", and on "In the Backyard" we see they're right. No matter how hopeful we may be now, there are still things to be cautious about, still people lording over trying to scare us into behaving. The preacher is the last in a long line on intruders -- the catfish, the fox, the border jumpers, the border guards, many others -- and he is the most lasting. Cutting into the narrator's land, taking what he believes should be his by right, to protect the narrator and his family.
"In the Backyard" is a chilling, but darkly funny song, one that never gives in fully to bleakness like Night of the Furies did. And, like many other songs on Life Like it hints at something better. Something far off, perhaps, but better nonetheless. And with help from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Portastatic's Matthew McCaughan, and many others, Life Like feels like the product of a community. Of people coming together to make something positive, without losing sight of their clear-eyed reality. The Rosebuds have long threatened to be the best, and smartest, pure pop band going, and with Life Like they take a big step towards becoming exactly that.