What a difference an album can make. Washington, D.C., act Le Loup's first record, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (a mouth-ful of a title taken from an artwork by janitor/outsider-artist James Hampton), was fairly dark-clouded. Recorded by primary band member Sam Simkoff direct to the built-in microphone on his MacBook, the album boasted a grand theatrical sweep way out of proportion to such humble origins, its dramatic, childlike apocalyptica reminiscent of Arcade Fire and multitracked choral and banjo arrangements that wouldn't sound out of place popping up next to Sufjan Stevens on your iPod's random shuffle. The album was chilly, empty, and echoing, full of (actual recordings of) thunderclouds and voices drifting off and upward into a cavernous black void—banjo-plucking from a back porch that looked out on the end of the world interspersed with the odd drum-machine-driven cruise through the wastelands.
So the bright, celebratory spirit and gently psychedelic sound of their new sophomore album, Family—their first recorded as a six-piece band—is striking, if not entirely surprising. (Just a quick glance at the two albums' covers—the first all-black with claustrophobic golden scrawl, Family an endless explosion of vividly colorful flowers—gives some idea of the shift in mood.) Not surprising because Family's freaky-but-friendly folk choirs, campfire harmonies, and space-echoing spirituals have several recent antecedents—Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Fleet Foxes all spring to mind (and if that sounds like an alarming amount of fauna, know that Le Loup is French for "the wolf," a name supposedly chosen by Simkoff as a joke about all the animal monikers going around in indie rock). Still, if Simkoff and company's take on this stuff isn't exactly earth-shattering in its novelty, it's certainly pleasant and persuasive enough to rock your wilder fireplace-lit dinner parties and potlucks this winter.
That would be about the right setting for the album's convivial, communal vibe, as well. Family begins with the exhortation "Celebrate the heavens/Given back to man-upon-the-earth" and ends with the almost eight-minute anthem "A Celebration." Its title track starts with what sounds like a distant religious chant and spends its second half as an all-embracing thanksgiving: "I know my father, I know my mother/I know grandfather, I know grandmother/I know my sister, I know my brother/But the blood that flows in this body and the blood that flows through these veins/Is everyone's and everything's." Let's see your family say grace like that.
"Sherpa"—a hopeful, open-throated sing-along nearly as ready-made as Animal Collective's "Brother Sport"—returns to such sentiments in the album's final quarter: "I've one mind to celebrate that notion/History in one hand and future in the other/And all that I have known/And all that I've been shown/I give to my sisters and brothers."
The whole album is decidedly wide-eyed (and possibly pupil-dilated) stuff. Whereas The Throne... forecast the Rapture, Family's "Morning Song" sees Simkoff greeting a new dawn "called through the window while the world woke up." The tropical haze, polyrhythmic hand percussion, and cresting guitars of "Beach Town" set the scene for whisper-soft, nostalgic reverie: "Hold my hand/Lost in the static of the sand/We're kids again." (Those lyrics are later echoed verbatim, like a memory, over the faded, sun-downing acoustic-guitar strum of "Neahkahnie.") "Grow" continues, "Come to me, my darling/And help me put aside my age," over an anchoring backbeat, overlapping harmonies, and a looped quasi-tribal yelp that wouldn't sound too out of place at Avey Tare's campfire (nor would the elastic refrain of mid-album cut "Forgive Me," for that matter).
Musically, these aren't complicated or unconventional songs, but they're elevated by the band's meticulous production (and mixing courtesy of the highly regarded J. Robbins). Throughout, vocal harmonies float and reverberate in open space, at times going so untethered and airy as to be almost wordless, with just elongated vowels coalescing out of the blur. The band's loping and clattering rhythms, effects-wetted guitar inflections, and various ambient atmospheres suggest warm, exotic climes as imagined, or maybe recalled, from a Maryland lawn.
Cynically, one could see such a stylistic switch-up as indicative of a band too beholden to shifting aesthetic winds, but Le Loup hold their own here and the album feels as genuine as any of its close kin. Will Family supplant Merriweather Post Pavilion, Veckatimest, or Fleet Foxes in your record collection? Probably not. Will it make a fine addition to those albums? Fam, trust.