Radar Bros. - "Horses Warriors" (The Illustrated Garden)
After Radar Bros. seemingly came to an end in early 2008, main man Jim Putnam didn’t take too long before he found new band members with whom to continue. Bassist Be Hussey and drummer Stevie Treichel joined Putnam on tour to support 2008’s Auditorium, and stayed on for the recording of The Illustrated Garden, the fourth Radar Bros. album released by Merge Records and sixth overall since 1996.
Given that Putnam is the only constant, the consistency of Radar Bros albums says much of his convictions — for the most part, the songs on The Illustrated Garden can be switched with anything on Auditorium or The Fallen Leaf Pages. It’s not that the songs are interchangeable, but a melancholy pop aesthetic swaths them all in a similar languid atmosphere. Putnam also records everything in his own studio with a determinedly analog signal chain, so the production itself aids in the consistency from album to album.
Garden sees an occasional burst of energy, more rock than pop, that could be due to the new rhythm section — a motorik sort of chug in "Rainbow,” the slow heaviness of "Quarry" — but mainly these songs remain steadfastly, quietly, emotional. For every moment that comes off too lightly, there’s an equal moment of memorable melody. Repeated listening makes it clear that how the songs are received depends very much on one’s mood: one time, "And the Birds" feels too fluffy; the next, Putnam’s vocals hit the right evocative note.
The lushness of the production is deceptive, as that word more commonly applies to songs that are built on layer upon layer of sound. These are relatively simple creations, but the placement of the sounds and the way the few layers blend into a firm bed for the vocals — clearly the focus here — is more often than not spot on.
Ultimately, then, it’s the vocal melody that tends to make or break each of these tunes, and it’s hit and miss. After a strong start, the album peaks with the quietly epic "Horses Warriors" and never quite regains the momentum. "Radio" ends the album precisely in the middle: it’s pleasant yet pedestrian by-the-numbers indie pop.