The Fallen Leaf Pages
ew bands with a sound as distinctive and consistent as Radar Bros’ (or Brothers, depending on which record of theirs you own) make music where the sound is so far from the point. Their last two albums, 1999’s sadly out of print The Singing Hatchet and 2002’s And The Surrounding Mountains are almost ridiculously sublime collisions of twangless alt-country topped with stately piano and glazed with Floydian keyboards and Jim Putnam’s supremely weird and obscurely terrifying lyrics. Both albums never try too hard to form a coherent narrative and so articulating what exactly is going on is tough, but in both cases the feeling is the same: Something has gone horribly wrong, and by the time of “Gas Station Downs” or “Morning Song,” respectively, all we can really say for sure is that the good guys (if there are any) are lost and that it will probably all end in blood. Putnam could probably write a great horror movie, but one in the Japanese mode with creeping feelings of subtle wrongness rather than a bloody slasher movie.
The chasm between the band’s melodic sweetness—on And The Surrounding Mountains especially, every song has a chorus that’s almost too consonant—and the tales being sung in Putnam’s crippled choirboy voice is what made Radar Bros. really, truly great. Their music moved sluggishly in the hot sun, always at a uniform tempo, but their albums fit together in truly eerie ways that meant they really were one of the few true “album bands” of the last decade. Yes, all of their songs really did sound the same—but if that’s what you focused on, you were missing the very real charms of their storytelling. At least that’s how it used to be.
The Fallen Leaf Pages starts strong and tails off, but even that would be more forgivable if Putnam’s writing was as distinctive as it used to be. He still reaches for menace, and occasionally succeeds: on “Papillion” he sings to a “broken weak butterfly… [who] traveled so far to die in my arms,” but there’s no longer the sense of a story, however cracked and frayed. Their past effort resembled narratives shattered on the ground and recounted haphazardly as the pieces were recovered; here, for the first time since their debut, The Fallen Leaf Pages just feels like a bunch of songs.
This almost works during the first part of the album, because the band is varying their instrumental punch enough to keep things lively. After the brief “Faces Of The Damned” eases you into the record, “To Remember” actually sparks a little drive, Putnam and fellow Brothers Senon Williams and Steve Goodfriend playing with their customary easy synchronicity but loping forward during the piano-led chorus. It’s still at half speed to everyone else but to anyone who is already familiar with Radar Bros. it’s almost jarring. “Government Land” similarly layers some actual momentum over the engagingly drowsy songcraft, but when the record meets “We’re Not Sleeping” it comes to a halt.
The shift back to the band’s more normal sleepiness is temporarily welcomed, but by the time “Is That Blood” begins with another lackadaisical tempo, boredom is hovering just around the corner—luckily, so is the chorus, one of the best here, which improves things noticeably if temporarily. A song like “Show Yourself,” composed out of nothing more than doomy piano chords and Putnam’s angelic mutter, would have seemed cinematic and climactic on Radar Bros.’ past work, but here just seems static. “Sometime, Awhile Ago” feels almost self-parodic; “The Fish” steps in near the end with some “la la la”s to salvage the proceedings, but it’s too late.
I had always assumed that my love for the Radar Bros.’ albums was at least as much for the hazy atmospherics and sugary choruses as much as for Putnam’s confused jumble of dark doings in the metaphorical wilderness, but the loss of the latter reveals that the former is too uniform for me. If you’re one of the few still itching for some more of that sweet slowcore sound, The Fallen Leaf Pages is one of the few records released this year that will scratch your itch. And the Brothers, having played together for over a decade at this point, are still making music that is intermittently stunning—as disappointed I am in parts of The Fallen Leaf Pages, I wouldn’t trade “Papillon” or “The Fish” or “Is That Blood” for the world. But as nice as it is to see Radar Bros. back in action, it’s hard not to wish they’d just reissue The Singing Hatchet, to remind themselves as well as their audience just how great they’re capable of being.