The concept of “dad rock,” like a lot of the stickier pejoratives circulating music blogs these days, doesn’t truly mount a criticism of the genre it describes or the bands that are said to skirt its boundaries a bit too closely. Instead, it bypasses the hopelessly subjective conversation about the quality of the music, and shifts our attention to questions we can answer pretty much by reflex: What kind of people like this music and are they cool? Naturally, dads aren’t cool. Even forgiven their tendency to like the Eagles and talk at length about “the Boss,” dads would remain the villains of online music criticism, which is defined by its Oedipal revolt against the standard of importance established by Rolling Stone and classic-rock radio. It’s a revolt that needed to happen, and it has produced a lively musical conversation in which dance music, hip-hop, and even pop are no longer met with preemptive derision, but one of the results is that a certain style of melodic, guitar-driven rock has been rebranded as fogie-ish and uninteresting. Even the Hold Steady, the last decade’s most celebrated practitioners of the style, couldn’t avoid having their hairlines (and waistlines) snickered at in reviews; the whole novelty was that they looked and sounded like a bar band, but played to younger, cooler, and eventually, huger audiences.
Brooklyn’s Caveman, like tourmates the War on Drugs, are one of a few young bands working to rehabilitate guitar rock’s image by merging their decidedly dad-ish core influences with more experimental ideas derived from the aughts’ explosive proliferation of indie acts. The most obvious points of reference for Caveman’s debut album are Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket, who have made the case that a generous dousing of reverb is all it takes to make ‘70s rock sound fresh and anthemic again. True to that formula, the songs on Coco Beware tend to sound, well, cavernous. The first thing you hear when the album opens with “A Country’s King of Dreams” is clattering, tom-heavy percussion reminiscent of Animal Collective; the next thing is singer Matthew Iwanusa’s plaintive tenor, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ben Bridwell’s, even if it doesn’t soar quite as impressively. Harmonies are also a major component of the band’s sound: When more concretely grounded, as on the first half of “Great Life,” the vibe is very Simon and Garfunkel, though the band’s also apt to veer off into more abstract territory reminiscent of Grizzly Bear. In fact, the album Coco Beware most clearly recalls is Veckatimest, sans the proggier influences.
Caveman seems to understand what’s expected from a buzz band on their first album, and they deliver the expected variations with confidence and skill. “Old Friend” is their most rocking number, and while its chunky riffs provide much needed support for the soggier aspects of the band’s sound, it also resembles Band of Horses even more than the rest of Coco Beware. To hear Caveman at their most distinctive, you’ll have to wait until the ominous closer, “My Room,” where a cyclical bassline and some spooky, isolationist confessions from Iwanusa effectively separate the band from their more blissed-out contemporaries in the beach-rock revival. The fact that it’s one of the only truly memorable songs on an album so stuffed with sophisticated melodies draws attention to what is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the band, namely the lack of a truly effective delivery system for their rock-solid songwriting. Since so much of the album is hazy and washed out in reverb, it’s easy to let the songs bleed into one another, rendering Coco Beware a prolonged drum circle with some enchanting but indistinct harmonizing.
To describe the album like that is to make it sound boring, even tedious, whereas Coco Beware is actually such an inviting album you can keep it on repeat and just bask in the cozy melodies and gently propulsive percussion. Too few of the songs jump out on the first listen, but nearly all of them get better as they become more familiar. I can’t remember the last time I responded so positively to a band that seemingly expended so little effort in getting me to like their music. You could imagine them forming, somewhat spontaneously, out of a drum circle at an Occupy campout, or playing a gig at a decidedly unhip local bar. The appeal of Caveman’s sound is almost too primitive to count as aesthetic at all; the album’s charm lies in its understated and decidedly unintellectual allure. We were all cavemen once, the band seems to be saying, and by the same evolutionary principle, we all have dads. As a species, we’ve been banging our drums and blending our voices far longer than we’ve been checking blogs for the edgiest in musical trends. Why fight against instinct?