Rogue Wave

  • Rogue Wave
  • Out of the Shadow (Sub Pop) 2004 
  • 10:1 EP (Sup Pop) 2005 
  • Descended Like Vultures (Sub Pop) 2005 

Even by their finely crafted second album, San Francisco’s Rogue Wave had not quite matched their chops to their considerable vision, which is not to say that over the first couple of years of their existence that they were not consistently teeming with a profusion of idiosyncratic bits and pieces of solid indie pop. Traces of Alaska!, Postal Service, the Apples in Stereo and By Divine Right show up, fairly assimilated, fairly modulated into a new pattern on the well worn rug. Because working in a Bay Area record store apparently ain’t what it used to be, songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Zach Rogue turned to fellows from other fine bands on the meditational and assertive first album, that would be Alex Sterling of Desoto Reds; on the vastly more consistent second album, Antenna’s Patrick Spurgeon, Sterling and Golden Gram’s Gram Lebron provide bulwark aid and comfort in the ABCs of indie rock: fleeting homage to Kinks (Village Green-era, natch), Yo La Tengo’s heart-stopping ballads, Pavement’s B-sides, druggy poetry written despairingly in a motel outside Omaha, dark chords, upbeat techno bridges that are really an ironic twist on the gloominess and guitar jaggedness.

With fine production by Bill Racine, Out of the Shadow is better on the slower numbers — wistful, pretty and folky, these songs lend themselves better to minor revolts and temporary melodic coalitions that check potential borrowing tendencies. In fact, on “Nourishment Nation” and the peppy Elliott Smith-like “Kicking the Heart Out,” Rogue Wave conspires to make brilliant minor-key victories. This is not perfect music: the observations seem too easily gained; the faster songs mere replicas of previous monuments; and no matter how graceful the notes’ elisions, an unskillful denouement on many of the songs’ endings.

More luminous and splendid is the 10:1 four-songer. Only the fine title song shows up elsewhere (on the next LP), and it’s good to see a band use the EP form for positive experimentation. Rogue Wave turns the corner here: simple is replaced by studio constructs; the singing is more natural; what was the soft light of a summer ambience has turned autumnal, prefiguring the more ambitious concerns (from private and local to universal and global) of the next album. “Interruptions” is a fine UKish standard-bearer for a kind of song that stares at itself in the mirror and sees itself smiling (although it isn’t smiling). Lovely.

Descended Like Vultures is bigger, meatier, bouncier. The album probes more aggressively than most indie pop. The choruses are ingeniously plotted, and the crescendos actually land where they are aimed. Some of the bridges still get hazy, and a few songs sound like each other, but for the most part, the guitars revel in their unleashed electricity and the rhythms are layered, propulsive and paradoxically so anchored they seem free. If no particular track stands out, credit the effort to try differing strategies. Better as youngsters to be a fox who knows many things than the hedgehog who knows one big thing. And Zach Rogue and his band know many things — how to write intelligent, gentle music that is part of a copious tradition yet remains distinctive and satisfactory.

There will be a great Rogue Wave album soon: what is now borrowed and blue will become innocent and fiercer; Zach Rogue will need to trust his vocal gifts a bit more. Here they are buried under a landscape of sonic effects: ethereal and lilting, tenuous and touching. Rogue’s voice needs to stand up and be heard.

[Michael Baker]