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Radar Brothers

The Illustrated Garden

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Merge Records

The line-up may have changed since Auditorium, but the Radar Brothers have always been about Jim Putnam’s whimsical tunes, many of which sound like psychedelic renditions of children’s sing-a-longs. Considering Putnam’s simple backwoods songwriting has always lingered in stark contrast to L.A.’s electrified and often pretentious indie scene, his following is quite impressive. The band’s latest incarnation finds the Brothers humbly playing stylistic catch-up with their peers, further building off the ulterior bluesy side Auditorium hinted at in 2008. As always, Putnam presents no shortage of his signature slowcore-rock-meets-quirky-folk, but The Illustrated Garden finds the glorified singer-songwriter is his most adventurous, plugged-in state of mind to date.

To begin with the obvious, the Radar Brothers excel at the slow and the simple. It’s hard to deny the reality that most songs from their early albums are very difficult to distinguish. That’s because these works yielded two types of songs: slow, acoustic tunes with a 3/4 strum, and slow, acoustic tunes with a 4/4 strum. Tempo variety was never on the band’s agenda. So, to hear “Rainbow” and “Radio” upon first listen is almost a surreal experience. These power chord-driven tunes approach half-time speeds that actually entice and allow listeners to, for the first time, headbang to a Radar Brothers track. As comfortable as Putnam is with creating melodically sluggish tunes, the band sounds just as confident performing with such uncharacteristic vigor. It almost begs the question of why he wasn’t writing songs like this sooner.

Even the band’s slow fare offers a fresh perspective. “For the Birds,” along with many other tracks, are lessons in classic Nirvana soft-loud formula. The energy levels crank up to fist-bumping, arena-level volumes during the choruses. Though dirty blues dominates “Quarry,” Putnam still finds enough room to tell another sweet, aural fairytale. In short, he’s found a way to continue making the music he wants to make, but in a more ambitious shell of sound. Perhaps that’s the result of his new rhythm section. Bassist Be Hussey and drummer Stevie Treichel have seemingly coaxed something out of Putnam prior bandmates haven’t. They’ve stretched his boundaries and left plenty of wiggle room.

Inside these new boundaries, the Radar Brothers are a little more liberal with adding analog samples and synthesizer parts. These organic-sounding counterparts were to be subtle accompaniments on prior albums, but this time around they grab us by the hand and skip with us through the colorful Garden. Take this as a metaphor for the band’s potential direction. After sitting on a plateau for nearly a decade, the Radar Brothers are ready to scale a mountain. Here’s to hoping they won’t exhaust themselves when they reach the peak.

by Jory Spadea
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