3 out of 5
Label: Merge Records
Produced by: Jim Putnam
I haven’t yet circled around to Radar Brothers 7th album, The Illustrated Garden, when lead RB’er Jim Putnam surrounded himself by a more consistent band, and rechristened the group from its originally abbreviated “Radar Bros.,” but catching up on the appropriately titled Eight, I can hear justification for the change: while always very much a Putnam-led act, the RB sound was a juxtaposition of lushness and isolation, with Jim’s simple and sometimes strange narrations marrying beauty to oddity, which mapped to the dude’s sound of someone singing mirthful songs that can’t help but be sad. I loved the makeup of this approach, as Radar Bros. evolved from more folksy and precise to more poppy and organic. Merge seemed like a good fit for their last couple albums.
But the plaintive titling of this disc may be indicative of a partially plain approach: while an every-few-years release schedule saw the group / Putnam tweaking the sound slowly but surely along the way, it’s perhaps telling that there hasn’t been a release (as of 2022) under this moniker since Eight: it’s Radar Brothers’ final form of sorts, the pop catching up to the slocore and giving us incredibly smooth, easy-listening guitar fuzz jangle, now especially especially home at Merge. The lyrics seem to peel back the smirk as well, becoming slightly more accessible; more singalongable. None of this is bad, and is rather very pleasant, I’m just not sure it is necessarily recognizable as Radar Bros. anymore, besides Jim’s recognizable voice; it’s pretty generic.
Countering this, though, about half the album uses this slightly-amped up base as support for those classic RB elements, somehow putting a pep in the sound’s step without losing the feeling of slocore morass. This stuff, confusingly, is brilliant, and maintains a streak of odd lyrical insights to match, often coming back to an image of water – lending some interest to the aqua blue of the cover art – and perhaps some religious dottings (particularly on opener If We Were Banished), while Jim muses weird at the world around him.
It’s quite a combo: some of the most exciting, interesting stuff Radar Brothers have ever presented, almost exactly alternated, track-by-track, with semi-forgettable glittery pop.