Radar Bros.

And the Surrounding Mountains (Merge)

Status-oriented lifestyles, self-serving personal interactions, omnipresent smog -- all valid stereotypes that smug Northern Californians tend to hold regarding Los Angeles. But just as the Santa Ana winds regularly blow the pollution into the Valley, the gentle strains of the Radar Bros. seem capable of diffusing the wrongs of L.A. In fact, listening to the lilting melodies of the band's new album, And the Surrounding Mountains, it's hard not to imagine a kinder, gentler city of angels.

The Radar Bros.' 1996 self-titled debut was far from a gentle breeze; instead, the LP was spare and glacially paced, which got the group lumped in with "sadcore" outfits such as Low and the Black Heart Procession. On 1999's The Singing Hatchet, however, the Bros. began infusing their folk rock with lush keyboards and piano. Like an odd combination of the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd, the band took simple melodies and turned them into epic statements, with singer Jim Putnam's high, reedy voice hovering above it all.

For album No. 3 the Radar Bros. have gone one step further and produced a set of songs that, despite the leisurely tempos and country-rock leanings, is essentially orchestral pop. This direction is clear from the first cut, "You and the Father," in which Putnam sings over a bed of synthetic strings and sleigh bells. Unfortunately, the tune's lack of dynamics and endless repetition suggest the group may have bitten off more than it can chew.

However, the trio hits its stride by the tremendous chorus of the second cut, "On the Line." Amidst dense layers of shimmering synths and a vastly increased volume, Putnam's multitracked falsetto savors a life of privilege while lamenting the plight of those who made it possible. The fourth track, "Rock of the Lake," again uses sleigh bells, but applies acoustic strumming and organ touches to eerie effect. Things get even darker later in the album, with both "Still Evil" and "Mothers" discussing the grim task of dispatching perceived enemies via sword and spear, respectively. Only the final cut, "Morning Song," provides some relief from the gloom, as Putnam croons, "When morning comes/ All demons will be gone."

Perhaps it is a bit much to expect the salvation of Los Angeles to come at the hands of a well-arranged pop album. After all, the Beach Boys ended up partying with Charles Manson, and there's no evidence that Rodney King and Reginald Denny gave a shit about the Flaming Lips' appearance on Beverly Hills 90210. Nonetheless, And the Surrounding Mountains is a refreshing listen -- a reminder that good things can waft up from down south. Let's hope those winds keep a-blowing.

 
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