Remember those Claritin commercials? You know the ones. There’s some spokeswoman in the middle of a green, green field holding a tennis racket or other athletic device and rubbing her allergic eyeballs. Then they pull a layer of something saran-wrap-like up from one corner of the screen and suddenly everything’s the kind of vivid bright you didn’t know to expect, because until they removed the film, the slightly hazier version looked pretty normal. Nice, even, because once the gauze has been removed, you seem to need sunglasses — everything’s a little too blinding.
After adoring, worshiping, wanting to physically hug Luke Temple’s first, nearly-solo 2009 release as Here We Go Magic (self-titled, via Western Vinyl), listening to this sophomore, full-band effort feels much the same as blinking in the suddenly too-crisp glare of a Claritin commercial. Gone are the narcotic haze, the woozy, otherwordly warbling melodic interplay, and the strangely cathartic folkiness. In these ideas’ places, Temple has wrangled four multi-instrumental bandmates, conjuring a group effort that likewise includes rhythmic and melodic ambition, but does so, somehow, with the shades pulled off. It’s not mystical, and it’s not hypnotic.
Though the songs that make up Pigeons rely on the same songwriting format that those of Here We Go Magic did — that is, a repeated, burbling theme below Temple’s reedy, delicate voice — many of these compositions center around front-of-the-mix bass and drums, the antithesis of the almost all-treble, tapping percussion and buried vocals of HWGM. The debut was ramshackle, pulled together from Temple’s 4-track recordings and put together for release with a song or two from other sessions, like closer “Everything’s Big.” It seemed haphazard, eccentric, with an all-folk or Americana bit thrown in here and there to supplement the bedroom experimentalism, and that was a large part of its charm. Pigeons, conversely, feels formal, like an honest-to-god studio recording. It sounds more like a lot of indie pop sounds nowadays. It doesn’t boast behemoth swaths of noise like “Ghost List” or the indescribable wave motion of “Tunnelvision.”
But that doesn’t mean Pigeons isn’t compelling or — if you can let go of comparisons — fun. The forward momentum of “Collector” and “Moon” with their repetitive, full-band jam-outs (which, granted, HWGM always featured live) somehow proves as emotionally full-throttle as a lot of the little bits of HWGM, while preserving the punchier sonic growth of Pigeons. And the lilting waltz of “Bottom Feeder” does what HWGM never did: it shows off the terrifying falsetto vocal prowess Temple aired on his previous solo records. If the debut had one fault, it was that Temple can sing so, so much better than it ever let on.
What’s more, Pigeons perfectly illustrates one of the patterns that independent musicians seem to follow of late. It goes like this: artist makes solo bedroom record and releases it independently or on a smaller indie label; record is much more successful than had been expected, so artist suddenly must tour and needs musicians to play with on said tour; artist tours with collected band, likes band, asks band members to permanently be in band. Now it’s a real band with multiple members, who, when it’s time to make another album, write and record it collaboratively. The subsequent sophomore release under the original band name (on a much larger indie label, probably) therefore barely resembles the debut. It’s not a bedroom record, it’s not solo, and it’s not borne of someone’s unilateral musical action.
And it’s just not the same. The rambling, off-key synth head-bobbers of “Casual” and “Old World United,” though catchy, come off as more annoying than eccentric, and though Pigeons’ final two tracks wax experimental, it’s not enough to compensate for the drummier, bassier middle ground occupied by the rest of the album.
Still, if Claritin commercials and Here We Go Magic have taught us anything, it’s that even if transition can be jarring, change is inevitable and ultimately probably positive. Temple and co. have obviously taken a big left turn that at the very least indicates a commitment to motion over stagnation; they’re pushing themselves and their listeners somewhere. There’s a brighter, sharper world out there. Given time, our eyes will adjust to the light.