4 out of 5
Produced by: Jim Putnam
It’s amazing how Jim Putnam – leading his evolving Radar Bros. crew – has been able to manipulate the same basic sound and evoke the same set of emotions for, jesus, multiple decades and multiple albums, and have it be continually compelling, and even, somehow, distinct per release, despite these consistencies. Yes, that’s a long-winded compliment.
Bands evolve, and their message changes; extra instruments come and then go as things get “back to basics,” and then maybe someone does a solo album. Radar Bros. have somewhat followed this path (Putnam sidling aside to do his Mt. Wilson Repeater release at one point), with the sound getting glossier and more fleshed out as the band size grew and they found a consistent home at the Merge label, but RB is also one of those projects that has always felt like it’d already found its most primal state from the get-go. The slow shiny pop that takes subtle minor chord detours; the harmonies that pretty up lyrics that shuffle through the shadows between over-bright rays of sunlight. Their discography is almost one giant ebbing and flowing epic contemplation on the mixed emotions that flutter through our brains, interpreted via seemingly random but visually fitting obsessive observations on small details in our surroundings, and yet, again, Fallen Leaf Pages has a different vibe than …And the Surrounding Mountains, which has a different vibe than Singing Hatchet, and so on.
The title imagery – leaves from a book, slowly fluttering in the wind – captures the essence, as Putnam’s eye travels over vagrants on park benches (on the mood setting opener), to thrown out roses, and slightly surreal visions of bleeding out while someone at your side weeps, on the dryly titled Is That Blood. Sonically, various keyboard-esque manipulations step in to enhance the uniformly flowing, beautiful, codeined Beach Boys pop RB has worked with album to album, this release centered around one comparatively chipperly-paced track (which interestingly masks the vocals more so than others) – Dark Road Window – which feels like it pulls back the curtain a bit, waking up from a glassy-eyed slumber, to confront those aforementioned shadows. The structural slow-strum-to-drumbeat setup is still intact, with a fairly even mix that still allows for punctuations of guitar swells, the slowly rolling bass peeking through, and thus avoiding the too-clean sheen that made …Mountains a bit of a drag at times.
Due to this years-honed vibe, its hard for RB to produce a ‘perfect’ album. The lyrics fade in and out of sense, and occasionally the way Putnam stitches images together feels too far away from the central idea to give a song weight, but Fallen Leaf is nonetheless incredibly cohesive, and whittled away some of the wandering that’s led to dull points on previous releases. Longtime fans will certainly be pleased, but even better is that RB keeps getting closer to putting out a disc that can grab the uninitiated, introducing them to that band that puts a sound to those niggling worries and fears that creep in as we watch the world slowly shift around us…