The indie rock band reaches back to reach forward on its new album.
When Rotary Downs concluded its Jazz Fest set with a cover of Gary Numan's "Cars," the choice seemed obvious. The band's set featured much of the music from its new album, Traces, and new wave sonic textures show up regularly on the album's songs. Sting's bass drives "Orion," a hairy, farting synth opens "Tent City," and Chris Columbo seems to have an endless arsenal of compressed guitar sounds that give his lead lines unnatural presence in the mixes. The parts sometimes come together with the loveliness of "The Sandwich Islands" or with post-punk angularity, as on "Flowers in Bloom."
That doesn't mean the album sounds retro. Rotary Downs plays d.b.a. tonight, and it has integrated much of the faux-futurism of that era into its sonic palate to give the songs a hyperreal, forward-looking quality. Many instruments sound like the most evolved versions of themselves, so the quivering electronic strings scream "romance" on "The Sandwich Islands," even when James Marler sings, "Darling, we're falling to pieces."
The sound hasn't affected Marler's song writing, which remains evocative, leaning on phrases and images to suggest moods and meanings. When he repeats
When God starts drinking
'"I'm not sticking around"
it's not clear what's happening, but the sense that its time to go is palpable. He taps into nervous energy when he sing/speaks
Black boots and a blue chinchilla
I'm a common country killer
Seems I can't enjoy it
Seems I can't enjoy it.
Marler's delivery in that instance recalls David Byrne, just as the song--"Country Killer"--shares an edgy funk groove with Talking Heads. The song is instantly, easily engaged, but that may be because it's on familiar territory.
In the '80s, the distinctly electronic, synthetic musical textures argued for a sonic notion of the future, just as science fiction movies presented visions of it. Most got it wrong--shouldn't I have my rocket car by now?--but the post-punk, new wave, and New Romantic bands didn't. Traces is on trend in its musical references and the way it employs them. The sonic palate is simply wider now, and Rotary Downs uses that latitude well on the album.