For The Rosebuds, Sand + Silence represents a way outof North Carolina, of Merge Records, of post-divorce chatter, of the stylistic stalemate that’s stalled the career of the once-ascendant pop sweethearts Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp.

A decade ago, Howard and Crisp emerged as a young, married and exuberant couple who’d relocated their racing pop-rock from the Carolina coast to the capital city after landing a deal with the state’s indie stalwart, Merge. On their first three albums, Howard and Crisp explored very different shades of the same melodic identity: Make Out burst open with college-rock oomph, sharp hooks bouncing over bounding beats and simple keyboards. Birds Make Good Neighbors dug its heels deep into wet Piedmont soil, surveying and reflecting a collected love of Tom Petty and jukebox country, sad ballads and temperate indie rock. Finally, 2007’s Night of the Furies slashed jarringly into electropop and suave European erudition, with synthesizers taking the lead for a more urbane approach to the couple’s bucolic past.

But private relationship turmoil stymied that stylistic exploration. While 2008’s Life Like and 2011’s Loud Planes Fly Low were fine records, they reflected unease and indecision beneath the surface. Since that last album, though, Howard and Crisp have moved on by talking openly about their separation and by splitting for different statesHoward to Oregon, Crisp to Columbia University’s writing program. They’ve ostensibly grown by growing apart. Sand + Silence, their sixth proper studio album, is their first without Merge and first with Western Vinyl, a broad Texas label better known for stately instrumentals and intricate orchestrations than crisp Southern pop. What’s more, The Rosebuds assembled a marquee team. Crisp and Howard co-produced the record with BJ Burton and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who has now appeared on three Rosebuds records. Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn and Hiss Golden Messenger and Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan anchor the rhythm section.

Really, The Rosebuds have never had a better chance to stun in the second act.

Instead, Sand + Silence is the third consecutive album where The Rosebuds seem to be debating still just what kind of band they want to be. While the individual pieces of Sand + Silence extend from good to excellent, the cumulative effect is that of a collage, or a scrapbook filled with replications of or updates to The Rosebuds’ past successes. “Blue Eyes” pushes through the same headlong euphoria as Make Out, while the cool rush of the excellent opener “Hours” offers an improved reprise on Night of the Furies‘ slow glide toward the dance floor. The drowsy sing-along closer “Tiny Bones,” on the other hand, could’ve been an appendix for Birds Make Good Neighbors or Loud Planes Fly Low. While “Wait a Minute” is the faded soundtrack to nervous new love, “Walking” serves as the score to an ebullient backyard barbecue. Sand + Silence feels like a mixtape made by many different bands, all somehow called The Rosebuds.

In the last several years, Howard has worked as a modern soulman. He was the lead voice of the psychedelic soft-rock collective Gayngs, and he served as the mastermind of The Rosebuds’ full-length cover of Sade’s Love Deluxe. Last year, under the canny name Howard Ivans, he offered two cuts of fantastic loverboy disco, backed by Richmond’s mighty Spacebomb house band. That experience represents Sand + Silence‘s one key addition, and it rightly results in some of the record’s most electrifying moments. Working the verses of the title track, for instance, Howard fights against his languid Southern manner to squeeze syllables into the swaggering rhythm. “I came a long, long way to see you,” he half-sings, half-shouts, his voice pushing into Al Green-like paroxysms. “And that salt stretched out forever in front of me.” He croons above a waltz of twinkling guitars and shuffling drums during “Give Me a Reason,” and he charms through the doo-wop yearn of “Looking For.”

Both tracks suggest a sudden expansion of The Rosebuds’ realm of influences and aspirations, but that’s not enough to make Sand + Silence the exit The Rosebuds might’ve hoped. That point comes best encapsulated by one of the album’s most magnetic songs”Esse Quam Videri,” a peppy suggestion that the waters off the Carolina coast are the safest place Howard could ever call home. It’s a song about making a break with the past, about “trying to find some privacy underwater.”

The music itself is a composite, though, just as attached to the band’s stylistic past as the North Carolina namechecks are to the former couple’s geographical lineage. It’s got the smooth contours and pleading vocals of Night of the Furies, the lush affectation of Birds Make Good Neighbors, the hopeful incandescence of Make Out. The Rosebuds, then, remain exactly what they have seemed for more than half of their dozen-year careera band so capable of crafting a variety of fetching songs that they still can’t decide exactly which songs are really theirs.


This article appeared in print with the headline “In or out?”