Asleep at Heaven’s Gate
ell, that's one way to avoid another round of lazy comparisons to the Shins. No longer part of Sub Pop's stable of bands embodying the vast oceanfront regions of Pac 10 country, Rogue Wave is rolling with Brushfire Records, home to markedly less cred-conscious touchstones like Jack Johnson and G. Love. But if there was something that separated the Bay Area foursome from their peers, it's that they come off without a whiff of artifice, a sort of dream scenario where you can stump for your friends' band because they're actually really, really good. And besides, only imagined barriers of presumed hipness can convince you that Rogue Wave's excellent catalog would be too much to handle for people who'd otherwise be listening to Ben Harper.
But fuck it, we have Dave Matthews to thank for the last two My Morning Jacket records, so we can assume nothing about Asleep at Heaven's Gate just because it's being released by a bunch of surf nuts who are among their biggest fans. Not surprisingly, it's Rogue Wave's most indulgent record to date and its most communal, with John Vanderslice, Nada Surf's Matthew Caws ("Chicago x 12"), and dozens of studio guests on "Own Your Own Home" pushing them even further from the Zach Rogue's DIY-crafted Out of the Shadow.
It isn't as risky as a proposition as it sounds; while their best known songs ("Eyes," "Every Moment") traffic in three-minute Braffery, the most enduring entries from 2005's excellent Descended Like Vultures were the most billowy ("You," "Are You On My Side") and structurally complex. The first half makes good on Rogue Wave's pursuit of ever-expansive songwriting, as the audacious crescendo-shaping of the opening "Harmonium" never grows stale over its 6:30 run time. Previously leaked sorta-singles "Chicago x 12" and "Lake Michigan" are a ten-minute Spy vs. Spy clash of twilight, aching melody, and clap-happy waltzing, not to mention curiously coded eco-friendly lyrics ("did you ever see yourself blingin' all around them?" goes a lyric on "Lake Michigan"). And even with a stilted "ooh ooh" thrown in at the beginning of each verse, "Like I Needed" is an effortless nod to their effervescent simplicity of their debut.
But there's no escaping the fact that Asleep at Heaven's Gate clocks in at 57 minutes, about 15 more than any of their other albums, and damned if Side B doesn't make it feel like twice that. There are a couple of redemptive moments: "Fantasies" has a hook so glowing, it's practically see-through and the meandering guitar spools of "Missed" convey a sense of wonder far more effectively than Rogue's voice, which too often turns into an indistinct lighthouse transmission under layers of foggy reverb and open-mouthed vowel pronunciation. They're mere tasty morsels amidst a mass of mid-tempo gelatin resulting from nearly arbitrary song structure ("Own Your Own Home"), bland chord progressions ("Ghost"), or one-take studio dickery ("Phonytown") that renders the closer, "Cheaper Than Therapy," a five-and-a-half minute afterthought.
No doubt this is a transitional record for Rogue Wave, and considering the difficulty they had in getting it out, we're probably lucky to have heard it at all. Descended Like Vultures indeed; the past two years found the band experiencing birth and death in their families, an acrimonious departure from a bulletproof label and, most notably, drummer Pat Spurgeon's kidney trouble, which inspired a 2006 fundraising benefit show in San Francisco. While it's probably for the best that they didn't internalize all of this turmoil into their tortured artiste album (soul-baring isn't really the Rogue Wave way), their flawed attempt to put the beach blanket and security blanket in the same hamper can only make you hope that some of indie's true good guys can eventually call this a mulligan.