Radar Brothers – The Illustrated Garden

4 out of 5

Label: Merge

Produced by: Be Hussey, Jim Putnam (recorded by)

Whatever the need lead Radar Bros. Jim Putnam felt to formalize his rotating band of musicians and rechristen his band “Radar Brothers,” it’s proven to not just be a name change. Perhaps with the desire to embrace the group format fully, The Illustrated Garden is, indeed, the most collective-sounding album from Jim since the RB’s first few. Not that that hasn’t resulted in some really grand productions inbetween, but by (I imagine) allowing the song-writing to be more of a team affair, the 9 tracks on this disc never hint at anything but a live, organic sound, fleshed out with keys and horns at key points, but otherwise a guitar / bass / drums trio, harmonizing and energizing the slow-roll Radar sound into something a skosh more animated and accessible, without losing Putnam’s unique ability, in his vocal tone and lyrics, to underline the pleasant with a sense of dread.

Those latter bits are also sharpened here, not the usual loose collection of imagery, but focused instead on this haunting, and often affecting blend of someone sinking into the world around them, while also being threatened and overtaken by it. Protagonists accept peace via death; ruminations on beauty are touched by the encroaching mundanity, and uncaring nature of nature itself, as well as the humans that occupy its space. People may drown; be drawn or quartered. But, hanging on to a habitual vagueness and off-hand delivery, none of this stuff is exactly forefront. Jim lilts, dispassionately singing about all of this while the music swells to reliable song-ending crescendos. This is a very RB quality, and the balance with the more sharpened, flowing songwriting is fascinating, although we do become rather inured to it (and some of the repeating visual themes) past the midway point; the last couple of tracks become a bit less distinctive.

Nonetheless, I love this minor reinvention of the band. It is immediately recognizable as Radar Bros., but also absolutely different enough to merit the slight change in name, drawing out an especially gorgeous and catchy set of tunes.