A new direction isn’t necessarily a bad one. Wife-and-husband duo Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard proved that with 2005’s sad-eyed Rosebuds record, Birds Make Good Neighbors. An unexpected turn from the ecstatic love-pop of their Merge debut Make Out, Birds turned down their Raleigh shades, darkening the band’s sonic palate as young love grew old in public.
On their third and most highly anticipated release, Night of the Furies, Crisp and Howard push their couple counseling in still another direction: Here, the focus is ghostly synths and galloping hi-hats punctuating a penetrating melancholy. The bubblegum-y, power pop guitar rev of Make Out? The Southern jangle of Birds? Forget them. Instead, Night takes its cues from a gaggle of more famous key-pressing tearjerkers, specifically pale ’80s heavyweights like New Order, Pet Shop Boys, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Still, if you put enough extrapolation into it, Night‘s sullen, moody new wave may be the logical extension of the darker, dustier Birds. But this albuma shining construction of echo-y vocals, silken synths and lustrous pianois far too sleek and sinewy for those previous rustics. Out of the gate, the resigned lost-love of “My Punishment for Fighting” finds Crisp and Howard giving us their most delicate goods. Naturally, the rest of the album follows suit.
To be fair, The Rosebuds have always been about the sweet and sour of romance, and, with a track record for cold feet on sonic paths, it only seemed a matter of time before they’d give “new romance” a stab. But the gloomy glitz and melodramatic flair doesn’t always suit the duo’s songs: The programmed beats beneath the sweeping guitars and melody of “Silence by the Lakeside” seem like an afterthought, a formality. The newfangled approach even births some inexcusable strangeness: On the clunky “Hold on to This Coat,” The Rosebuds and their production team (Brian Paulson, Mark Paulson, Justin Vernon) squander the record’s best vocal performance with a Fruity Loops house cut shaking hands with Depeche Mode.
But Crisp and Howard know their way around pop songs: For all its schmaltz, “Get Up, Get Out” is a structural beauty and one of the best choruses they’ve ever written. With the Shout Out Louds lending their voices, “Silja Line” is remarkably strong and self-assured in its spooky starkness. Quietly, it claims the spot as the best track on the record, thanks mostly to its simplicity, and Crisp and Howard’s impeccable pacing. It’s proof of how fantastic The Rosebuds could have been here and can be in the future. For now, however, we’re left wondering why Nights resorts to superficial garnish and awkward posturing when such strong, simple songs live right beneath the surface.