Last month, Dreamers of the Ghetto played a headlining spot at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival, an honor they shared with such indie giants as Superchunk, Guided By Voices, and the Flaming Lips. The bold curatorial choice to let these relative newcomers play the big City Plaza stage rather than one of the dozen or so small venues participating in the festival made a lot more sense if you’d heard the band’s style of atmospheric arena rock, which updates the well-tested chime-and-holler of U2 by anchoring it in the type of moody synth tones definitive of indie’s current moment. Like fellow luminaries of the school of big, sad rock anthems (say, Low or Explosions in the Sky), Dreamers of the Ghetto make music that’s suited just as well to the privacy of headphones as to the stadium, settled just at the vanishing point between isolation and universality. It’s gorgeous when it all comes together, but that doesn’t happen nearly enough on Enemy/Lover.
Though its title is strongly suggestive of duality, Enemy/Lover is fairly one-note, a nearly invariable collection of anthems gravitating toward the sludgier end of midtempo. If the first half of the anthem slips occasionally into sameiness, the second practically capitulates: Songs like “Always,” “Phone Call,” and “Tether” aren’t better than their predecessors, they’re just longer. These would-be showstoppers simply scale up the same dynamic employed on the album’s shorter tunes, and in doing so confirm that a formula is indeed in place. Ominous synths move in, their enveloping darkness eventually pierced by electric guitar, with singer Luke Jones finally settling his ragged howl on a rallying cry to be repeated, mantra-like, until the end of the song. These deliberate build-ups never climax in an especially satisfying way. Where U2 would use a soaring chorus and Explosions in the Sky would employ a surge of guitars, Dreamers of the Ghetto favor repetition as route and destination.
Aesthetically, there’s something cool about an arena-rock band that eschews the standard action-flick dynamics of the genre, letting their melancholy sink in instead of dissipating it in phony catharsis. But the considerable impact that one such song makes is thoroughly spoiled after you hear three such songs in a row, and so the lack of dynamism between songs or across the album as a whole makes Enemy/Lover difficult to enjoy. Given a wider range of material to show off the group’s considerable strengths (Jones is a powerful and expressive vocalist, and the band’s control of texture and ambience is exquisite), Dreamers of the Ghetto could have produced a much more compelling debut. These complaints will sound familiar to anyone who waded through the mid-aughts glut of post-rock band, and Dreamers of the Ghetto are far from the first Temporary Residence act to display a knack for soundscaping unsupported by a similar command of songwriting. Still, that label has seen less likely success stories, and the good thing about new bands with obvious strengths and weaknesses is that they almost always knock out a superior sophomore album when the time comes.