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Rogue Wave – Nightingale Floors (Vagrant)

Rogue Wave - Nightingale Floors
26 June 2013

Hear as much as you can, as early as you can, before you get the idea that your interests constitute a lifestyle. That’s my advice for listeners, and if it accomplishes nothing else, I hope it at least helps someone understand that bands like Rogue Wave make music, not easy programming for people and situations that don’t really exist. Bands that provide the soundtrack for fake television and movie scenes usually end up doing so for reasons tangential to their art, but people who confuse perceived context and actual context often forget that.

The conventional wisdom: Rogue Wave’s music took a turn for the worse around the time they became popular—no coincidence, but again, a blunder of perception, not art. Really, their music never became any less knotty and weird and wondrous than it was at the beginning. The band’s first two albums are universally well-regarded, but then the accepted history diverges from mine: Asleep At Heaven’s Gate was too slick and hollow, and Permalight an unlikely foray into dance pop, according to the books. When I listen to those albums, I still hear their howls, stray notes, vapors of R.E.M. Asleep’s sound was expansive, yes, but assembled from a holy mess; Permalight contained dance songs, but only three, and even those were complicated by scratchy guitars and dense swells of voices and drum machines, moments totally gone in sound.

I’ll agree with the assessment of Nightingale Floors as a return to form, but not in any way that requires me to whitewash the excellence and weirdness of the band’s recent history. A few things are different here: (1) The band moves away from easily discernible responses to tragedy, submerging emotions in songs that are a bit teasing and obscure, even the anthems and ballads. The lyrics haven’t changed, but the muted presentation allows them to mean in a less open way. (2) There’s an equivalent move toward the home recording attitude, if not aesthetic, of debut Out of the Shadow and Zach Rogue’s more recent Release The Sunbird project. Songs seem free from the burden of expectation, especially on an album that could be called long awaited. (3) So it goes in 2013, when they’re among the last ones making music like this. But they have a healthy view of their fortunes, and are happily indifferent to attracting or keeping the attention of anyone who would not try to hear them. From a distance, the music is pleasant and mellifluous, but not especially commanding. Let’s call it a test, like the driving scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: Do you walk out or do you move in closer?

I recommend the latter, for the patient and committed listener. Nightingale Floors takes a long time coming into focus, and even when it does, it excites with melody (what else?) that’s warped or bubbling or subtly articulated or shrouded in fuzz. Early songs, like the ones on Asleep, begin with cycling patterns of ringing guitar notes and are built upward from there. A lesser band might use these patterns as a final gloss, some desperate concession to rhythmic momentum where otherwise there’s none, but Rogue Wave, architects in a pretty real sense, start with the skeleton.

The band, always more of a fluid entity, has as its current formation Zach Rogue, Pat Spurgeon, and guests; Rogue is a guitarist and Spurgeon a drummer, but both are multi-instrumentalists, and they navigate styles with the calm of longtime collaborators, so that it’s easy to miss all the bold maneuvers and wealth of musical instinct at play. Along with the anthems (“College” and “Siren’s Song,” both aiming for the heart and thus appropriately irreverent/irrelevant in their words) and ballads (“The Closer I Get,” gentle and gorgeous, vs. “Without Pain,” haunted with reverb), there’s a cool low-key groove sort of song, “S(a)tan,” the kind where the phrase “son of a bitch” gets followed by a growl of guitar, and a spacious shoegaze ‘n’ tumbleweeds epic, “Everyone Wants To Be You,” that closes the album in a mode reminiscent of Mazzy Star. And there’s “When Sunday Morning Comes,” the standout, ticking forward all sweetness and lethargy. Still, they all kind of melt into each other and the day, so that this might end up my most played and yet most unheard album of the year.

Actually, on paper, these songs aren’t all that unconventional, and the sounds respond to the songwriting, not to some kind of private inner logic, so I don’t know why I’m having so much trouble making sense of this album. But I know that, even for the Rogue Wave initiated, nothing I can say will make the music more quickly digestible, so I suggest hearing Nightingale Floors a lot, or not at all, because nothing in between will be of any use.

“…still gets better every time I hear it. So messy, sad, strong, beautiful.”

“One of those big, communal, life-changing rock albums, all the better for never really being celebrated as such.”

“One of those albums that can only be heard years later as the sound of people at their best.”

Those are lines I’ve written about Asleep At Heaven’s Gate, an album I’ll always be hyperbolic and sincere about. The slow to open but more manageable in scale Nightingale Floors, on the other hand, might never sound much different than it sounds today, an album the size of everyday life in a brief season of confusing vitality.