I miss The Shins. Oh, their new sound is good; frontman James Mercer gives it his all with clever lyrics and solid indie pop. But where have the mellow harmonies of the group’s first album gone? The ones that changed Zach Braff’s life in Garden State? It’s at moments like this that one turns to Rogue Wave. Not that they’re simply Shins imitators, but their affection for harmony makes such a comparison a good starting place.
Rogue Wave’s first album, Out of the Shadow, was critically lauded and classified as sounding a bit like anyone’s favorite pop band, with suggested touchstones ranging from 60s rock to Simon and Garfunkel folk to 90s shoegaze. The comparisons to The Shins and their own sensibilities were inevitable, given both bands’ love of cryptic lyrics, a slightly wry perspective, and love of harmony. Just as The Shins made a large stylistic departure between albums one and two, Rogue Wave has similarly stepped a bit sideways (if maintaining a soft-pop fixation) on Descended Like Vultures, their sophomore effort.
Descended is as much about lyrical cleverness as it is the tension between harmony and dissonance, electric and acoustic. While opener “Bird On A Wire” has a carnival air, it warns the listener that “you’re a bird on a wire, and you’re wrestling” before blasting them with dissonant guitar whine. And for almost every electric, pop single like “Publish My Love” there’s the light folk strumming of a “California”. This dashing back and forth across two extremes gives the album a surprising balance. The best moments are the extreme noise (credited simply as “guitar mutilation” in the liner notes) of “10:1”, the riotous wordless chorus at the end of “Love’s Lost Guarantee”, and the committed softness in “Salesman At The Day Of The Parade”.
At the same time, the constant straddling makes the album tread water at its weakest moments. Every soft can be expected to get loud, every loud to get soft. The consistent nature of the guitar harmonies (electronic or acoustic) results – in the worst case – with the assessment of each track based solely on volume. And if the band had stretched Descended beyond its forty minutes, that sentiment might have overwhelmed.
Out of the Shadow was overlooked when it first came out, only getting attention after being reissued. On Descended Like Vultures the band has released a consistently good album that, if it risks repetition, is nonetheless some of the sweetest pop out there that can be pumped out of one’s stereo and also enjoyed on headphones. It isn’t timeless, but will more than tide you over until The Shins return.