Like tectonic plates, Radar Bros. move exceedingly slow but eventually build up something momentous. Auditorium (which comes out next Tuesday) is the band’s fifth album, their third from Merge, third this decade, and possibly their best. They’re a band whose appeal is nearly impossible to explain: a minimalist combo of sorts whose drummer (Steve Goodfriend) nearly always keeps a steady 2-4 going and whose bassist (Senon Gaius Williams) rarely gets to exceed one note per bar. The sum far outweighs the parts: Radar Bros. are the unlikely triumph of method over monotony.
2002’s And The Surrounding Mountains is a concept album of sorts: smiley major chords and the kind of melodies that get mandatorily labeled “sun-dappled” play counterpoint to vicious little lyrics about family members in turmoil—the “Sisters” taking a weapon that “looks clean,” a family member simply summarized in the song “Still Evil,” etc. Writing disturbing lyrics for pretty songs is nothing new, of course, but the just-vague-enough thematic arc gave that album focus and edge. 2005’s The Fallen Leaf Pages is an album I remember hating, spinning the mandatory three times and tossing aside; there was no audible progression from song to song, and song titles like “Is That Blood?” seemed to be skirting self-parody. Auditorium’s big joke is that the title’s a fraud; these are nature songs, from “Watching Cows” to “Brother Rabbit.”
Happy fun titles aside, this is the most intense, diverse album they’ve ever made. If the first four tracks are excellent business as usual, “On Nautilus” brings the unexpected to the forefront, with pissy synths that sound ready to vomit foregrounding a song that’s not just ominous lyrically but musically. “Hills of Stone” follows, daring to sound not just stoned and grandiose but genuinely aggressive; this may be their first album where you don’t need multiple listens just to tell the songs apart. Pissy quotables to horrify your friends are still there (“Fat cops make better targets,” “Happy Spirits” cheerfully announces), but the music’s attained a new level: still recognizably them, yet tweaked just enough so as not to require infinite patience. This is the first great album of 2008, even if it’s aimed more at the devotee of glacially paced pop than anyone else; there’s few bands that write verse-chorus-verse songs with less cross-over potential than these guys.
In light of all that praise, I’m about to turn into a complete hypocrite with regards to The Magnetic Fields’s latest, Distortion. Isn’t Stephen Merritt’s project also fundamentally dedicated to maximizing intentionally limited resources? Maybe, if I didn’t have the sneaking feeling that 69 Love Songs already accomplished everything that band (OK, outlet for Merritt’s formal experiments disguised as a band) set out to do. I’ve always been mildly annoyed at Merritt’s insistence on turning simple lo-fi songs into elaborate experiments that still sound perversely under-recorded (if you don’t believe me, read the little booklet that comes along with 69 and find out exactly how much exacting electronic dicking-around it took to make the album sound that tinny). He’s the Lars von Trier of indie rock, constantly setting new rules for himself (69 songs on one theme, then insisting that every song on his follow-up begin with the letter “i”).
But I wish that, like von Trier, Merritt would just break the damn rules every once in a while, because sometimes a whole album of constraints gets baffling. Distortion begins with a fuzzed-out instrumental, “Three-Way,” to set the mood, and it’s the last time I could relax. The basic idea here, as far as I can tell, is to match the harsh wall of distortion with some of the harshest lyrics Merritt can come up with, which is how we end up with wailing about how sobriety is intolerable, but when you’re shit-faced people find you charming. Then there’s “The Nun’s Litany,” which plays the simple trick of giving a nun dirty thoughts (“I want to be a topless waitress”). “California Girls” has a mean-spirited buzz to it, with self-made New Yorker Merritt cranking out lyrics articulating every East Coaster’s not-so-secret hatred of those happy-go-lucky, cocaine-snorting, warm-weather enjoying, fake-tan minxes, but it just sounds like a meaner version of the equally rough and clang-y “When My Boy Walks Down The Street.” The album is, honestly, not that bad: like 69, it’s better taken in small doses, contains some peaks and valleys, and listening to Merritt’s melancholy voice is always a pleasure. He can give as good as he gets, so—on the off-chance he reads this—I feel no compunction saying I think this record kind of sucks. In 2004, when the Onion A.V. Club asked whether he could see himself writing a whole record around one theme, he answered “Sure. But it would be an arbitrary theme.” So it is: Distortion doesn’t do much with its meticulously controlled guitar haze besides blanket it over everything and hope the songs sound fresher that way.
Speaking of the A.V. Club, now might be a good time to mention that part of the diminished word count this week is at least partially attributable to repeat listenings of and cranking out tiny little capsules about fairly unremarkable records by The Whigs and Eric Matthews. Before listening to Matthews, I finally got around to the album that made his name, 1994’s Cardinal, the only collaboration between Matthews and Richard Davies. Davies hasn’t put out a solo album in 8 years, while Matthews is still cranking out unfocused songs with great arrangements. Cardinal is one of those albums that’s never really gained any status greater than indie cult fave; no Nick Drake cross-over potential here. “Baroque-pop” it might be, if by “baroque-pop” you mean “involves trumpets”; Davies songs are surprisingly oblique and hard to get a handle on. “Delicate insight/I can’t hold a Christmas card” is how “You’ve Lost Me There” begins—and yes, Mr. Davies, you have lost me there. This is an album that revels in unexpected time signature changes that seem to be trying too hard the first time around before they prove as oddly, inexplicably catchy as the Fiery Furnaces. I have little to say about this album, except it’s one most people are unlikely to hear about unless you spend way too much time digging around for vaunted obscurities; the 2005 re-issue is surprisingly essential for an album that neither sold a lot of records nor was particularly influential. Hearing the songs as stripped-down demos points out how Davies seemed to leave blank spaces in the structures deliberately, counting on Matthews to fill them in (the man’s a whiz with ornate, unexpected arrangements). There’s also enough goofy out-takes to lend the whole project some much-needed humor, something Matthews seems to have left behind entirely at this point.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.