4 out of 5
Label: See-Thru Broadcasting
Produced by: Jim Putnam
True enough: practically any Radar Bros. release could be said to be representative of their sound: Jim Putnam’s Kermit croak over codeine-slow guitar strums and choice evocations of bass, and steady percussion. As the years went on, this perked up a bit and got more lush, but the core ethos very much remained.
But also true: Radar Bros. sophomore album, The Singing Hatchet, is the definitive RB sound to me, bringing Putnam’s particular vision to the edge of its creepy, crawly effect; it made sense that the group would leap to Merge and include a bit more pep hereafter, because Singing Hatchet was the ultimate expression of the band’s minimalist approach, rather perfectly sprinkled with bits of ambience here and there, gorgeous bridges, chilling vocal layering, and some of Jim’s most cryptically “I can’t tell if this is upbeat or depressing” lyrics. I love it. However, I know it, get it, and experience it: without the forthcoming lushness – and even with that – the RB sound is also fairly limited, or rather, its expressiveness is found in the smallest of variations. So we do get a small cycle of “types” of tracks which Hatchet repeats: beatless strums; propulsive drumming leading the most hummable of tunes; and a wandering guitar that gives way to a suddenly gorgeous and catchy climax. During the course of the album, you’ll revisit that cycle about 3 times, and you might start to think that one track sounds like another… until repeated / closer listens bring out those aforementioned variations, fingerprinted at just the right spots: tip-toes of feedback; background samples; the way percussion fades; guitars and bass ring out; Jim’s careful application of multiple vocal lines, separated out only as needed. The precision of this stuff is fun to match with how jangly and loose the foreground playing / singing is, and is another reason why I often revisit this album as my brain’s example of how the group “should” sound when at their best.
And all of this works absolutely in necessity with the production, which brings out all of the above in a most organic way, though with the overall distancing effect the band employs which I would say is key to its indie Americana: it’s beautiful, but far away; in your living room, through a digital wall. I even extend this to the album art, still an odd standout in RB’s discography: the background befitting the open, natural spaces / themes we often see on their covers, but then a goofy dude waving at the viewer, off-center. It’s a quirk. The great outdoors, offset by goofy humanity – the perfect representation of my definitive Radar Bros. disc, which is also fittingly imperfect… but nonetheless my go-to when I seek to be confused and lulled by Jim’s soothing croak over shaky but steady guitar strums…