Album review

Radar Bros.

Auditorium, the Radar Bros.’ fifth album (fourth if we’re only counting British releases) in twelve years is a sneaky cuss of a creature. Initial spins left me thinking; this is pleasant enough, pretty much like their other albums, with their meandering, lovely songs that seem to go nowhere fast. However, the more I listen to it, the more it seems to reveal its depths and textures as little treats to my tired ears. The sound feels a little more layered, muscular even, without sounding radically different to previous releases. Auditorium is a record that rewards close attention and despite its often dreamy, somnolent sound and feel, it certainly isn’t background music.

‘When The Cold Air Rises’ begins with the simplest of openings, a down strummed guitar and gentle vocal before developing into a brash, confident yet yearning song full of lovely melodies and harmonies. It seems like the gentlest of wake-up calls, not the shrill effect of an alarm clock but the slow drift into one of those rare days when you have nothing to do and nowhere concrete to be. ‘Warm Rising Sun’ slowly reveals itself with its hazy, slightly melancholy feel and subtle, biting lyric that hints at humanities impact upon the natural world: “The money stays green / But the water’s not blue”. ‘Happy Spirits’ combines a light, laidback musical feel with some dark imagery, from the surreal, grotesque opening line, “I saw you eat your own kid” to the scathing

You speak mountains of shit
on a beautiful day
You make a face like
it’s cold by the window
As we swallow all those mountains
with a smile.

Although the song titles and much of the imagery contained within the songs relates to the natural environment, the human spirit and the impact of humanities actions and decisions are never far from focus. ‘Hearts Of Crows’, built up around an elegant piano, tells the listener, “Hearts of crows sing in your ears / Of wishes never granted in an empty dust well”. Yet Auditorium never becomes bleak or unbearable, it holds out the chance of hope and redemption in every song.

‘On Nautilus’ and ‘Hills Of Stone’ showcase a darker, harder edged sound. The former has an impressive mix of voices working together while the latter is full of subtle changes and textures, a stark, gentle psychedelic sound and an expansive, expressive vocal. The song starts brightly when Jim Putnam announces

I get to sing
Tall trees are waving to me
Breath of a southern sky
I’m good for this.

Without warning though, this idyllic pastoral gives way to a much bleaker, devastating image:

Hook on a string
Drops in red water spring
Cousin drowning in the thick night air
I remember this.

This change in mood is handled with exceptional grace and economy. Nature, like humanity, can be cruel and dangerous as well as beautiful and inspirational.

‘Lake Life’, with its sleek chiming chorus has a lighter feel while ‘Watching Cows’ begins with a strange image:

Up all night
Watching the cows swim
Across the river
Dead or alive
One by one
They got across this.

This gorgeous, downbeat song showcases the Radar Bros. exceptional ability to build a sense of dramatic tension with their songs without losing focus on the emotional core. When Putnam sings “I want to go home / Just like the cows” it sounds so heartbreaking, emphasised as it is by some impressive slide guitar. ‘Pomona’ and ‘A Dog Named Ohio’ unfold at a sedate, leisurely pace like a laidback Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The latter song is about political corruption in Ohio though it’s not immediately apparent from the words. The song begins simply enough with

You and I
Driving through the hills
What’s to do with Ohio
Is she sleeping still?

Before finishing with

Ohio the dog
She’ll sleep all day long
Ohio the dog
She’ll sleep all year long.

The subtle changes, soulful vocal and minute dramatic flourishes invoke a sense of movement in the face of Ohio’s apparent slumber, a sleep made possible only by burying her head in the sand. In contrast, ‘Brother Rabbit’ promotes the joys of just sitting still, doing nothing but being alert to the slow, gradual changes all around. The cool, jazzy guitar forms circular patterns as the narrator tells us “I’m gonna sit here / I’m gonna will away on an old green chair”. ‘Morning Bird’ closes Auditorium with its lulling rhythm, bird song and pretty slide guitar. It’s a sweet closure for a beautiful record.

Radar Bros. make timeless music, music that is, on the surface always the same yet always changing. Despite the laidback, almost serene, feel of many of the songs, a sense of gravitas and emotional turmoil lurks just below the surface demonstrating that the natural world is not just about peace and serenity. Not a note or word is wasted, there is nothing extraneous here on this lovely, engaging record. Radar Bros. embrace the concept of economic writing, using the minimum of tools to produce the maximum effect. Auditorium may be their best album to date. Chilled out but not chill-out music, recommended for bruised but not bowed romantics and dreamers everywhere.