Being in your 30s is such a humbling age. You're no longer the post-backpacking-through-Costa-Rica kid stumbling into your first real job interview. You're not even the late-20s semi-adult who can still make an ass out of herself regularly and blame it on being young, drunk, or young and drunk. All of a sudden you're older, and the sad stuff that comes into your life lingers longer.
Ten years ago I maybe had one friend who'd been in a bad car accident. That was the extent of my proximity to tragedy. Now I've been with friends through everything from divorce to ovarian cancer to nearly jumping off a freeway overpass after a drug binge. I moved to San Francisco to be with a boyfriend who decided to then bail on our relationship. It's not like I come home to a misery list on the fridge or anything, but sometimes if I take stock of everything crappy that's happened to the people I care about it's a little staggering.
I've been feeling reflective after talking to Zach Rogue, front man for Rogue Wave. Since releasing 2005's Descending Like Vultures, Rogue Wave has fallen victim to circumstances measuring up to its name. There was the split with Sub Pop, the record label that, among other successes, brought the band exposure on TV shows like Weeds, Friday Night Lights, and Heroes. But at a time when the group was being trumpeted as the next Shins, its members were grappling with bigger issues than whether they'd be added to actor/director Zach Braff's next soundtrack about a life crisis.
The thirtysomething members of the San Francisco indie pop act Rogue Wave dealt with two family deaths and one near-critical illness, all in one year.
Drummer Pat Spurgeon spent 2006 seeking a kidney donor for the second time in his 40 years. After surviving two tours on dialysis, Spurgeon's health took sharp downward spiral. "We were worried he wasn't going to make it at all. His body was giving up on him," says Rogue. After a couple of near-matches for kidneys failed, Spurgeon finally lucked out in the donor lottery and received an organ transplant early this year.
After coping with Spurgeon's kidney failure, as well as the loss of keyboardist Gram Lebron's father and Rogue's grandfather, Rogue Wave was ready for a little good fortune — or at the very least, an outlet through which the musicians could come to terms with the past year.
Asleep at Heaven's Gate, the group's surprisingly hopeful new record, marks a fresh luck streak — Rogue's old pal Jack Johnson is putting out the disc on his Brushfire Records label — and a release from the band's collective emotional damage. "When we were thinking about making a new record, I thought we were going to do something really raw and primitive and not too many layers. [Vultures] was so roomy and ambient, I wanted to get away from that. But all these life experiences happened and it was so heavy," says Rogue, who became a father of a baby girl earlier this year. "There was heavy grieving and then there are so many dramatically pendular things happening around us, outside of our personal worlds." When Rogue Wave did enter the studio, the walls of sound returned, giving the disc a roomy, ambient sound after all.
On Asleep, piano and keyboard melodies twinkle alongside long outbursts of noisy guitar pop. Moods shift from restrained acoustic reflections ("Missed") to cathartic chants and literal bells and whistles ("Own Your Own Home.") Rogue's hushed vocals give nearly every song a moving lullaby quality, one that works whether he's championing ebullient subjects or, more often here, working through loss ("Ghost" and "Cheaper Than Therapy"). When the songs soar, as on triumphant opener "Harmonium" and the melancholy "Lake Michigan," you can feel college radio playlists making instant adds to their rotations.
Despite Asleep's many charms, however, early reviews of the record have been mixed (Pitchfork said it features Rogue Wave's "best songs to date" but also offers too many unremarkable tracks).
The album requires patience. The songs are moody and occasionally understated, and the disc is long for a pop band (it clocks in at more than an hour). Unfortunately, patience is something music bloggers — who more and more often are deciding the initial success of an album — don't have.
Rogue, who started Rogue Wave in 2002, expresses frustration with bloggers. He complains that after one new single was previewed online, anonymous commenters spewed personal attacks on him and his bandmates. "Some of the stuff people said was so callous and rude, like how dare you be so honest about your feelings, that's so passé, how could you be emotional in a song," says Rogue. "We're supposed to make songs these days where everything is sarcastic and no one wants to reveal their feelings, and that's a real shame."
Rogue says the Chris Rock joke about the music industry's "Here today, gone today" mentality is too often the truth. "Some of [the criticisms about Asleep] I think were coming from not really wanting to listen, like Oh, heard it before, done," says Rogue. "It's like 'Wait a minute, no, hold on a second, just listen to the whole thing completely.' But I know that's just the way it is."
This exasperation with the industry's gnat-like attention span made its way onto the new album, in the form of "Phonytown." The track was written after Rogue Wave left Sub Pop — which Rogue claims was an amicable parting after the band's contract expired — and the group was negotiating with various record companies. "This guy was trying to get us to sign [to his label] and he says, 'I have to ask, the perception is that you're damaged goods. You're kinda done. Is this a risk we should be taking?' I was like 'Damaged goods? We just started playing music.'" says Rogue with a laugh. "Everything is so quick, everyone wants the new thing."
The good news for Rogue Wave is that despite that incessant push for the brand spankin'-ist band, timelessness trumps fickle music fads every time. Asleep's stark contrast of a gorgeous pop album expressing an honest emotional ache stands outside expiration dates. Music like this reminds me that wear and tear on your psyche is so common someone can write a catchy tune about it — and you can appreciate it regardless of whether you hit a 30s doldrums. If you can hum along to someone else's purged grief, your own earns an important ounce of levity.