In writing a review of the new Radar Bros. album, it’s tempting to just throw the matter aside entirely and simply post a link to a review of their last album, The Fallen Leaf Pages. Anything written there probably holds just as true this time around. Jim Putnam and his fellow Bros. have been at it for over 10 years, yet little in their approach has changed: As usual, Auditorium is a solid set of down-tempo, slightly melancholy rock, seemingly loathe to get too excited about anything, itself included. The band’s third release for Merge is unlikely to catapult them into the same spheres of fame enjoyed last year by some of their illustrious label-mates, but a comfortable position below the, ahem, radar seems to suit the band quite well.
Then again, there is something decidedly new on Auditorium, namely the addition to the band of multi-instrumentalist Jeff Palmer, who throws in a few unexpected twists (bass harmonica and musical saw solo on “Lake Life”). Overall, the sense of atmosphere here – something like the musical equivalent of the lethargic expansiveness of an empty desert – is perhaps more consistent than ever before. At the same time, the rather insular production seems to work against this effect; Auditorium is too trapped in the studio to fully evoke the outdoor spaces that Putnam’s lyrics often dwell upon.
The Radar Bros’ subtle and rather monotone approach threatens to bury their music under a thick shroud of indistinguishability; it tends to mass together, and for the most part seems to be confined to a comfortable mediocrity. But then there are those moments that suggest something stronger, which on Auditorium are concentrated in the album’s second half. For one, there seems to be a thematic arc going on here, as four (of the album’s five!) songs mentioning animals in the title are clustered together; there is clearly some design beneath the surface. As slight as it may be, the sense of a recurring lyrical motif does a lot to hold these songs together, while the lyrics on the self-explanatory “Watching Cows” reveal how much Putnam stands to gain when he moves away from the almost unnoticeable and all-too-abstract lyrics that pervade the rest of the album. Secondly, Putnam deigns here (especially on “Pomona”) to give us some actual hooks; situated in this spare setting, they are surprisingly effective.
At risk of coming to a rather predictable conclusion, it is indeed the small nuances that slightly trouble the homogenous surface that provide Auditorium with much of its interest. Then again, were this placid surface to be troubled too much, the very aesthetic that grants the Radar Bros. a clear (if rather self-effacing) identity would likely cease to exist.