I was in high school during that awkward half of a cultural moment that I will forever associate with the second season of The O.C., when “indie” was gathering momentum as the first incarnation of rock music to make some headway among casual music listeners without making any references to the garish pileup of post-grunge, nu-metal, and rap-rock acts which had theretofore dominated rock radio. There were lots of debates about whether indie was being “commodified” or “mainstreamed,” and people would often say that a band “sounded indie,” which mostly meant that it sounded like the type of thing you’d hear on The O.C.. Portland’s Ravishers sound “indie” in exactly that sense: the tuneful but uncommitted vocals, the guitars discordant and chiming by turns, the piano doing the brunt of the melodic work. Laidback and even a little too well-mannered, it’s classic McCartney-ite pop with a distinctively West Coast twist. The obvious touchstones are Elliott Smith, Spoon, and Death Cab for Cutie.
It’s odd to think that this style of music, which less than a decade ago was overexposed and, at least for marketing folks, represented the very idea of “hip” and “youthful,” now sounds like a throwback. “Nobody Falls In Love Anymore,” with its sad, stately mixture of horns and piano (to say nothing of singer Dominic Castillo’s lovelorn lyrics about L.A. freeways), could’ve soundtracked any one of those Ryan-Marissa breakup montages, and “The Chase” sounds like the very idea of indie rock in the heyday of the West Coast boom that brought us Rooney, Phantom Planet, and their ilk. Since the Ravishers hail from the Pacific Northwest rather than California, their demeanor is less sun-kissed and beachy, more rainy-day winsome, but either way it’s the sentimentality that sticks more than any of the melodies.
Which is a little bit puzzling, since Ravishers contains some surprisingly sophisticated songwriting. The jazzy guitar figures, no less than the lilting piano melodies, contribute to some of the more intricate pop songs in recent indie history. But those same songs are sort of a blank slate in terms of their identity or emotional impact. The Ravishers don’t bring much of themselves into their performances here, and so their finely composed numbers hit bluntly. At times the band seems aware of this failing, trying vainly in the middle stretch of the album to break out of their nice-guy shell and, you know, really rock. “Lesson in Leaving” is one of a couple unconvincing stabs at garage-rock rawness, its opening line both awkward and oversold: “You need a little bit of danger in a smile.”
Polite and well-heeled to a fault, the super-professional Ravishers show promise as songwriters, but their disavowal of all things gimmicky or outlandish leaves them sounding indistinct. Even a surprise breakthrough on a teen sap soundtrack seems unlikely; it’s just hard to imagine anyone getting all that excited about them.