Emerging out of the early-90s slowcore movement that birthed fellow indie rock stalwarts Low, Radar Brothers matured into a sunnier, more psychedelic sound with 2002’s And the Surrounding Mountains. By the release of The Illustrated Garden eight years later, however, some of the praise the group had accumulated over the years was becoming muted in certain quarters by critics who felt that front man Jim Putnam had settled into too comfortable a groove to genuinely surprise the listener any longer.
The band’s eighth release (appropriately titled Eight) should alleviate some of those concerns, at least. The album features an expanded lineup that now includes Dan Iead on guitar/pedal steel, Brian Cleary on keyboards, and Ethan Walter on piano and synthesizers. Along with the additional personnel comes a brasher and more forceful sound. One need look no further than album opener “If We Were Banished” for evidence: the song pairs a great lumbering electric guitar melody with a lunar synth backdrop to create the album’s most arresting offering. “Reflections” underscores the reality of this noisier, more boisterous Radar Brothers with a razor-sharp guitar lead that could have wandered in off a Built to Spill album.
But once the initial novelty wears off, the album settles into a repetitive groove of its own. Iead’s pedal steel guitar gives “Couch” a laid-back alt-country vibe, and “Bottle Song” creates an echo-y, cavernous feeling by balancing the muffled sounds of the guitars and Stevie Treichel’s drums against Cleary’s tolling keyboards. In between those scattered points of interest, though, the album sort of melts together into a mid-tempo blur. Putnam’s lyrics don’t astound here either. His writing style is peculiarly insular, yet for all its idiosyncrasy, I rarely find myself startled or intrigued.
Long-term fans of Radar Brothers should find enough adjustments to the tried-and-true formula on Eight to keep things interesting. The album’s strongest cuts reveal an undeniable energy and excitement on the behalf of its creators, but those moments are much too sparse to draw in many from outside of Putnam’s cult of true believers.