There are very few albums released in the wake of an admission of serious substance abuse by its principle songwriter which sound anything other than a product of its environment. Even when the music survives – and even soars – unscathed by the human chaos which swirled around its creation, the personal maelstrom can usually still be found buffeting the listener via the lyrical content. In the throes of personal depression and propped up on booze and drugs, the Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner hoped that by upping sticks and moving from New York to record Observator in L.A. a bit of sunshine would filter through the heavy curtains hanging around his life and his music. Instead, while producing a handful of songs which hint at progression and growth, the Danish duo’s sixth studio release hums with the disorientation and displacement of being removed from home – and more critically – from oneself.
Recorded in just one week at Sunset Sound Studios with Richard Gottehrer at the controls, Wagner and partner Sharin Foo have made a record that draws heavily on their previous work and usual influences such as grungy 1950s rock, peppy 60s girl groups and 90s shoegaze, but one feels that if they had taken more time to both deal with their personal demons and do justice to the good songs which lurk beneath the surface, Observator would have been more than just another Raveonettes album. It certainly has elements of a record which could have lifted them far above the many reverb-and-hooks bands which have sprung up since their debut a decade ago. Unfortunately, the promise contained in the few stand-out songs is never fully realized. Wagner has spoken of the dread and despair he faced in L.A. which affected his songwriting. Instead of finding the healing light he was looking for by the Pacific Ocean, he returned to the life of the night owl. As such, even when there are uplifting and thrilling moments, they pass like a fleeting high to be replaced by what is an enduring and dreary sadness which permeates this whole collection of songs.
The Raveonettes have never been a happy-ever-after band; their beauty comes from their disconcerting epic sonic fuzz and the uncomfortable yet mesmerizing contrast of Foo’s dreamy, haunting voice and the barbed stories of doomed affairs in seedy motels and Lynchian dystopia it delivers. Fans of this blueprint will be glad to know they don’t deviate from the game plan they established on prior records but given the possibilities that songs such as “Observations,” “Sinking with the Sun” and “Downtown” offer, anyone hoping for more will soon see that the chance was there to make a great record but external factors conspired to produce a pretty ordinary one.
Despite the personal turmoil which this album was created in, it will be – on the surface at least – a comfortable album for Raveonettes fans mainly because that vintage garage fuzz and arrangements inspired by the Everly Brothers and Phil Spector which has been the band’s stock and trade still survive. The production is still reliably lo-fi but the vocals are set lower in the mix than usual, making the lyrics hard to discern at times. One gets the feeling that the content is being hidden self-consciously at times, perhaps too raw and too dark for even the band’s liking.
There is a very introspective atmosphere throughout with Wagner employing a piano for the first time on a Raveonettes record. On opener “Young & Cold,” the keys offset the dirty scuzz of the guitars but instead of lifting it higher, it only serves to add a loneliness to the sound. However, the piano is used to better effect on “Observations,” driving the song down a badly-lit interstate at midnight, surrounded by the misfits and freaks the night provides with comfort. The first single from the album is a sparse and beautiful song; a restrained highlight. “Curse the Night,” however, is a prime example of the many blown chances Observator is guilty of. The chiming chords and lilting vocals set the stage for potential greatness until an overly-affected breathy chorus comes in and spoils it all. Neither haunting nor childlike, it just sounds like Sharin Foo has a sore throat. In the same vein, “The Enemy” rolls in on Cardigans melodies and hints of Abba-esque harmonies but is spoiled by Wagner’s lethargy. Repeating the song title over and over again does not constitute a chorus in my book.
Thankfully “Sinking with the Sun” offers another glimpse of redemption. It’s gothic power-pop with a definite nod not only to the band’s beloved Jesus and Mary Chain but also to gritty 90s shoegazers such as Curve and Catherine Wheel. Here, Foo’s vocals hold their own with the fuzzy guitars in a rare triumph of synergy between thrash and songcraft. “Downtown” is perhaps the brightest and most upbeat song on the album – evidence of what could have happened throughout had the album been given more room to breathe and the band more time to recover. It’s the sound of a pair of army boots dancing in a field of daisies; channeling The Primitives and the Darling Buds, it’s shallow chiming guitar pop for the hell of it, a vibe full of abandon and one of too few chinks of light in what is a consistently bleak album. After “You Hit Me (I’m Down)” runs through the various lyrical and melodic styles deployed by Nina Persson over the past 15 years, Observator ends a song too late with “Till the End”. It’s filler dragged out to the bitter end; the scuzzy, overstretched mix working least effectively here, sounding more recorded in a garage than garage in genre. The album would not have suffered had it ended 3’18 earlier.
One would hope that the problems Wagner has experienced will be dealt with by the time the Raveonettes decide to go into the studio again. It would also serve them well to take more time when they’re in there because there are moments of Observator that hint at a future full of soaring and inspiring music. It would be a shame for this band to spend the rest of its career making the same record over and over again. They haven’t run out of ideas but time will tell if the new ideas they do have will be given the time and space to become extraordinary.
Reviewer: Nick Amies
IRC: Bill Pulice
You can read more of Nick Amies by visiting his webblog at http://ligger.wordpress.com/
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