Six albums and 12 years in, Delusions of Grand Fur finds Rogue Wave ready to move forward with nary a direction in sight.
Rogue Wave — the band best known for “Lake Michigan”, a single that lives in many iTunes libraries apart from any of its kin — have long relied on the signature combination of Rogue’s cherubic observations and shimmering guitar melodies. When the band graduated from the charming lo-fi sound of Out of the Shadow and Descended Like Vultures into the more lushly conceived sounds of Asleep at Heaven’s Gate, there was promise on the horizon.
Then, 2010’s Permalight was a dud, an attempt to go dance-pop that sacrificed the band’s identity in the process, while 2013’s Nightingale Floors was an album of reluctant acceptance, a half-hearted effort from a group a decade into the search for itself. Delusions of Grand Fur is then the sonic soul-searching of a band exhausted by the struggle.
Eschewing producers and demos to figure out songs live in the studio, Rogue and his main collaborator, drummer Pat Spurgeon, bid adieu to the fairy tale pop of their past and in its place approach their latest record with ennui and uncertainty.
Opener “Take It Slow” kicks off with a shimmering guitar line and distorted vocals over a simple keyboard melody. Its sedate pacing is disarming, masking the build to a firework of harmonies. On “In the Morning”, the influence of former Death Cab For Cutie producer Chris Walla as mixer is felt immediately. A percussive thump in the spirit of The Lumineers provides a contagious pulse, over which Rogue allows his voice to wander, the range a reminder of his chief instrument’s potency. As the track progresses through a melancholic bridge — one of Rogue Wave’s signature strengths — to end on a rollicking but reflective guitar fade, it is clear there is a new life and focus at play.
Things truly cross the threshold on “What is Left to Solve”, which opens the album’s second half and also serves as the lead single. An oppressively heavy synth bass begins the track, quickly joined by a crackling guitar. It’s an electronic sound that shares more DNA with Grimes than anything Rogue Wave has previously done, but the fragile allure of Rogue’s voice keeps the track from sticking out as an indulgent outlier. As he sings about being “illuminated by my digital replacement,” Rogue’s fears that his band will be relegated to the aging label of mainstream indie rock are laid bare. “What is Left to Solve” is then Rogue’s battle cry, a dark and ominous manifesto that rejects claims of obsolescence by embracing the very thing cited as its cause.
The ’80s homage continues with “Frozen Lake”, which sets a bouncy beat over a bed of abstract noise, before melting away into something more familiar. “Am I perfect for you?” asks Rogue, a resentful seduction that again breaks away from the puppy love narrative of sun-dappled meadows that the band has long thrived in to instead conjure bleaker imagery. “Endless Supply” benefits from the wealth of new territory explored elsewhere on the album as a shining example of what Rogue Wave does best: jangly guitars and stuttered drums leading into harmony-drenched choruses.
Yet as the sonic narrative shifts so drastically on Delusions of Grand Fur, it is sometimes difficult to keep up. The psychedelic groove of “Ocean” feels wholly out of place, while “California Bride” comes off a diluted take on something the band has already done better. Yes, the forays into the unknown are welcome departures, but they come at the cost of familiarity, a “sell your soul to find it” dynamic that pays off only in fits and spurts. While the imagery of the record — lonesome days, the technicolor of nostalgia — carries over from albums past, the lighthearted touch that made early gems like “Seasick on Land” and “Postage Stamp World” is fully absent.
When it works, Delusions of Grand Fur makes a case as Rogue Wave’s strongest album, an expansion of sound anchored by the omnipresent sweetness of Rogue’s voice. But where it falls short, the ghosts of Permalight and Nightingale Floors loom ever larger, a haunting reminder of the growing distance between the band’s sterling Sub Pop debut and current quagmire. As Rogue Wave work to overcome the chains of being “just another band from The O.C. soundtrack,” it seems they’ve drawn a defiant X but yet to find a map on which to place it.
Essential Tracks: “Endless Supply”, “What is Left to Love”