Caveman improves synth-folk project on latest album

courtesy of seatgeek.com

courtesy of seatgeek.com

By FEMI ABORISADE

Caveman, the rock quintet from New York, has made their name in the music scene by mostly remaining ambiguous about their sonic roots, so much so that reviews of their debut effort, “CoCo Beware,” had critics placing the group between acoustic folk-rock and gleaming synth-pop, a rather huge musical chasm. Regardless, if the band’s distinction was hard to pinpoint earlier, its latest album, “Caveman,” displays an unabashed step forward into the realm of synth and sun.

This brave adherence to a form gives Caveman stronger consistency in its sound and listeners a solid experience. “CoCo Beware’s” main fault is perhaps the clear lack of focus in the experimentation: it had the five men hammering out what mix of plaid-shirted rock and lush vocal harmonies worked with the MIDI instrumentation they had at hand. This approach turned out decent, but resulted in odd tracks like “Vampirer.”

Thankfully, Caveman’s second album shows the group finally sticking to its guns as to how it should sound. In a nutshell, the album sounds like sunbathing in the Gobi Desert for hours, with kaleidoscope patterns blotting out the sky. They accomplish this through mellow guitar melodies, frontman Matthew Iwanusa’s vocal harmonies and a liberal application of ambient synthesizers — sometimes icy and effusive, sometimes static and glaring — all held together by shimmering production.

Tracks like “Shut You Down” and “Ankles” feature this style well, the former a jangly guitar tune slowly consumed by a bright wall of synth, and the latter a smoldering fire, built on four broad notes, live drums and Iwanusa’s sparse vocal mantras.

The best song on the album, “In The City,” excels on its courage of somehow pushing Caveman’s core elements to the maximum without resulting in a sensory overload. The melody is sweet and inviting, and the plodding pace works despite the keyboardist’s apparent urge to ramp up too fast.

While Caveman takes care in crafting each song from the core sound, the lack of variation does mar things a bit. Perhaps if they produced a couple stripped-down versions of “I See You,” the album’s most unadulterated rock song, the homespun quality would suffice, but that would seem contrary to their efforts on “Caveman” as a whole. Equally, the “wall of sound” technique it routinely employs at the end of tracks — “Chances,” particularly — does promote the idea of music washing over the listener, but so did it when bands like My Bloody Valentine or School of Seven Bells employed it, and much better.

The rub, then, is that Caveman has done well in sticking their feet on one solid spot, but considering what they produced earlier, should remember to bring or find an appropriate balance that fairly places each element, the folksy and the ambient, in the limelight. It is fine to bake in the sun, but always remember to flip.

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