Friday, April 16, 2010

Album Review: Rogue Wave - Descended Like Vultures

Rogue Wave: Descended Like Vultures
Sub Pop 2005


I know I’m not alone in having tendencies sometimes for my music to be an easy, comfortable listen that gives me the goods (melodies, hooks, harmonies, a little pop, a little rock) with few or no strings attached. While of course musical preferences heavily influence what an “easy listen” is or means to different people, among other things, some bands and albums are better suited than others to provide enjoyment no matter what kind of day you’re having or what mood you’re in. Before listening to Rogue Wave’s Descended Like Vultures, I didn’t think I’d find such an album within the indie genre. Not to pigeonhole the vast and virtually limitless musical varieties and genres under the loose dominion of independent music, but so much of the indie music I’ve listened to, which I still love, requires the suspension of mainstream commercial definitions of how melodies, hooks, riffs, beats, and basic song structures should be done in music today.

I instead believed that I would continue to listen to old standbys in mainstream rock, pop, and even country for music that I could turn on anytime and enjoy when the more complicated stuff just isn’t doing it for me. It turns out, however, that there are huge exceptions: Rogue Wave is “why isn’t this on the radio” material.

At the time of the recording Descended Like Vultures in 2005, Rogue Wave, out of Oakland, California, is led by guitarist and lead singer Zach Rogue, who was almost the sole engineer of Rogue Wave’s 2004 debut album Out of the Shadow. He is joined by the impressive multi-instrumentation of Gram Lebron, primarily on electric guitar, the late Evan Farell, primarily on bass, and Pat Spurgeon, with focus on percussion.

For an album rich in pop sensibility, it curiously begins with “Bird on a Wire,” which flirts with notions of delirium in its creepily layered vocals and subtle sound effects. The song, nevertheless, has a positive aura to it, like most of the songs here. The band’s true pop rock sensibility is on full show in “Publish My Love,” a supremely catchy song with a soaring chorus and dreamlike ambiance that could be envy of late R.E.M. Following this is “Salesman on the Day of the Parade,” one of a handful of great acoustic pieces that are a testament to the melodies swirling in Zach Rogue’s head and their strength in a full band as well as with minimal instrumentation. Probably the best of these quieter songs is the album closer “Temporary,” a slow trotting and emotionally moving tune with some of Rogue’s most intimate singing on the album.

The frantically paced, highly synthesized “10:1,” the fun, almost folky “Medicine Ball,” and the epic “You” are other highlights on the album. “You” in particular rivals “Publish My Love” as the album’s top tune as it builds tension and momentum until the crescendo reaches an inspiring climax that is then tempered by the sweet, subdued chorus. With no weak tracks and little repetition, listeners could easily choose any of the album’s 11 songs as their favorite.

For its numerous forays into the depths of paranoia like on “Bird on a Wire” and “10:1,” Descended Like Vultures never sounds threatening, as it is just about always saved by an uplifting chorus and an instrumental change of heart. On one hand, this makes for a very easy, gentle and enjoyable listen for any fan of melodic rock and a strong pop hook. On the other hand, however, this reassuring element to Rogue Wave’s songs also takes away from the dynamism of the album and each song seems to hit you generally the same way. For someone looking for music to move and rattle them beyond the confines of a hummable chorus and radio-friendly veneer, this may not be the band for them, at least not for extended listening sessions.

While Zach Rogue’s melodies are exceedingly pleasurable and relatively simple, his lyrical work is sure to leave lyric-junkies scratching their heads in trying to decipher his complex vocal message. While seeming to convey emotional contemplations in stride with the music, the message comes in abstract bits and pieces, presumably of a larger context, that ends up contributing to its allure. However, with melodies as infectious as these, it’s easy to see how the lyrics can be overlooked.

The result of the album’s heavily polished production and the band’s extensive use of subtle instrumentation as a foundation for the often louder song-defining melodies, with the exceptions of the acoustic numbers, is a rich sound palette that warms the band’s catchy hooks and interesting song developments. On Descended Like Vultures, from the diverse, jumbled and, to many, peregrine world of indie, Rogue Wave is on the same wavelength as the mainstream radio listeners. Ultimately, however, Descended Like Vultures is an excellent album for anyone interested in a pleasant, immediately rewarding listen.

"Publish My Love":

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