Sun July 28,
Graceland, $8 adv.
If you've never heard of the Radar Brothers but are a fan of lush, slow-tempo musical compositions, go out and buy this year's And the Surrounding Mountains. Skip to the final track for a crash course in the band's explosive capabilities. "Morning Song" blooms with heat and the wide expanses of space filled with languid, meandering melodies. Keyboards dip and swoon under dry guitars and spare, stoic drumming. Singer Jim Putnam's vocals vacillate between a high croon and a coarse whisper as he populates his songs with characters both forlorn and worshipful--and, on at least one occasion, murderous.
Based in Los Angeles, the Radar Brothers have been playing together and releasing albums since 1996. I was hooked by the raw nakedness of the self-titled debut EP, which opens with a song featuring Putnam's apologetic lyric, "This isn't something I could really sing about." It was so easy to be drawn in by a songwriter compelled by his own mortification, because we're all familiar with the concept whether we act upon it artistically or not. That song, "Hey," finds Putnam lost and scrambling, unable to fathom that which once made him happy. It's the sparse, dimly lit beauty of the song that makes its inherent sadness unencroaching, and over the years the Radar Brothers have made album after album rich with such perfectly weighted, sorrowful gems.
The trio's third release, 1999's The Singing Hatchet, raised the Radar Brothers' profile above near-obscurity. Released overseas on the Delgados-owned Chemikal Underground label, The Singing Hatchet introduced a wider audience to a sound similar to that of the Delgados, but with an arid element. That aridity pervades each Radar Brothers record, but Putnam claims it's unintentional, although he recognizes its ultimate existence. "It just kind of comes naturally; it's a side effect" says the CalArts-schooled singer. Putnam studied painting, and I tell him that his songs are so cinematic that they can be seen and felt as well as heard; I ask what his creative process entails. His answer is refreshing in its lack of pretense. "A lot of people describe the songs as cinematic," he explains. "They're kind of like mini-soundtracks, and I like to hear that; it's a nice compliment. In terms of writing songs, I get very inspired by watching TV and bad movies. It's a weird thing--I just like to sit in front of the TV because it distracts you from the pressures of writing, and I find that the ideas can just flow better that way. It's pretty unpredictable what might inspire you. I mean, it's television, and I have cable, so there's a vast world of opportunities out there."
By its very title, And the Surrounding Mountains lends itself to picturesque interpretation, but the songs themselves are beautifully staged, with a keen eye for detail and the avoidance of overkill. Opening track "You and the Father" sets a tempo that remains constant throughout the album, and there's a lovely, building flourish that ebbs to a lone acoustic guitar just before Putnam begins singing. "Time to talk or time to run/The shadow in the sun's creeping out from under me" casts a melancholic mood, which struggles against the resigned knowledge that apathy will undoubtedly prevail over compulsion.
Sunlight, candlelight, and darkness are recurring images on the disc. In "On the Line," a woman can tell she's taken too long at some unknown task by seeing how far the candles have burned down. The piano-strewn "This Xmas Eve" references eyes that have grown dark and are no longer able to see the festiveness of the holiday, but only the carnage of familial inspection. While the lyrics are dour on their own, the cohesiveness of the songs makes it hard to stop listening at any midpoint--each track compels you to launch into another, anticipation of sorrowful subject matter be damned.
Putnam credits his recently acquired 24-track tape machine for the audible shift from a lo-fi aesthetic to the understated lavishness of And the Surrounding Mountains. "There are obviously more tracks, and also maybe this record was a little bit more ambitious. I've been working on expanding my studio for years, and it's slowly gotten bigger with more stuff in it," says Putnam of his basement workspace. I ask if he ever feels the urge to pull back from all that new capability and return to the band's original no-frills sound, and he answers thoughtfully: "That's actually something that I've thought about--maybe in the future I'll try to get more of a dynamic going in that sense."
Whatever changes the future holds, Putnam, drummer Steve Goodfriend, and bassist Senon Gaius Williams have proven that quiet, sad sentiment, woven through threadbare melodicism, makes for riveting listening.