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Posted November 16, 2009 by Mike Mineo in Features
 
 

The Roofwalkers Renovation

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Releasing an album fresh out of college can be an interesting process. One arrives at the point where excitement and ambition are more prevalent than ever, not yet deterred by continuous rejection or personal crisis. All the knowledge acquired during class and work now has to be put to use using reason; this occurs as attempts to acquire and execute new ideas grow subtler and less prevalent with time. For the handful of full-time musicians that attend college, it is a time of self-discovery that puts them to the test in a very unpredictable industry. This pressure often results in imitation overriding innovation as artists become reluctant to use their own ideas, seeing a lack of resources and investments as reasons for avoiding risks. Pagoda’s 2004 debut, Dearly Departed, was a pretty impressive release in this regard, at least in the fact that the young members managed to put out a release that boasted their enthusiasm and obvious intellect in music. Polished playing and production is unlike most young DIY indie-rock acts, causing many to take note of their songcraft. Press was particularly heavy in their native Washington D.C., where they were hoping to revive a lackluster music scene. The fan response was amiable all over, though there were many that thought the band had even more to offer.

Dearly Departed was enjoyably demonstrative of a group with heaps of potential, but there was something missing. Keeping in mind the struggles of recent undergrads emitting originality, it sounded at times like a tribute album. All the songs were quite good but comparisons to influences were too abundant for the band’s own good. The album showed the genres of dream-pop and alternative-rock being nostalgically referenced to their American likenesses throughout the past few decades. The dream-pop spectrum sits well in regard to artists like Yo La Tengo, Mercury Rev, Big Star with their spacey reverbs and bursts of instrumental intricacy, while impressive guitar work and enthralling hooks show shades of alt-rock and Americana to integrate both serene soundscapes and impressive musicianship. This would probably sit well with the Elephant 6 collective, where artists like Apples in Stereo produce a likable effort that is similar in its multiple integrations. It is certainly a bunch of great artists to follow and be inspired by, and this is primarily why Dearly Departed was so well-received. But it also showed Pagoda as a band with tons of potential, enough of which would one day produce a resourceful sound that would inspire others instead.

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Further maturation after the release of Dearly Departed prompted a name change for Pagoda, turning to Roofwalkers before recently setting on The Roofwalkers. The cast remains mostly the same, the only difference being Elmer Sharp replacing Kevin O’Meara on drums. Vocalist Ben Licciardi resembles both the reverbed lushness of Alasdair MacLean and multiply fronted attack of dream-pop groups like Yo La Tengo and Mercury Rev, the latter’s comparison arising most when male and female harmonizing overlaps on tracks like “Chin Music”, which is one of many impressive efforts on their new album, Roofwalkers. One of the most impressive displays of both is “Port of Call”. Specializing in slide guitar and celtic folk, its melody is washed away in a delicate reverb that ushers in the delicate vocals of Licciardi with the utmost precision. The concluding minute or so sees the band playing with various levels of guitar distortion, all while maintaining consistency in regard to the rhythm section and keyboards. The latter play a particularly prominent role with their sly twinkle, contrasting with the echoes of the guitars very nicely. “Find a way, oceans between us,” Licciardi creaks out. “Leaving the port of call, nothing left to haul.” Emotional recovery is a theme that speaks volumes throughout Roofwalkers, and under the layers of fragile reverb and evolving guitars it bodes well.

“Chin Music” is very reminiscent of The Clientele, especially in how the guitars unfold from lush atmospherics to a quickly paced arrangement with more likeness to prog-rock than shoegaze or dream-pop. The group maintains their dream-pop fixtures, but the expansion in guitar-based melody on this track brings a sort of prominence that is impossible to avoid. The dual male-female vocal leads toward the conclusion make this stylistic assimilation even easier; they both complement each other with professional courtesy and melodic richness. How the guitars unfold into a technically impressive rush is simply one instance of the unpredictable flashes of brilliance from The Roofwalkers. “Cut Every Corner” enforces that as well, showing an interesting introductory arrangement. Using muted acoustic guitars as a driving rhythmic force, various sources of instrumentation gradually compile masterful accompaniments in condensed post-rock form. Licciardi’s vocals here are slightly more lagging and drawn-back, almost resembling Lou Reed in that aspect of intentional sloppiness. The grainy guitar solos about mid-way through only establish that old-fashioned feel even more. The Velvet Underground, Television, and other technically impressive groups with a sense of early dream-pop seem to be paid in tribute here, though a track like “Cut Every Corner” still contains so many original ideas that it would be more accurately cited as an example of The Roofwalkers’ immense cumulative talent. Their new album simply boasts a newly inspired sense of originality, which brings in heaps of great ideas without sacrificing the enjoyable nostalgia of their dream-pop influences.

RIYL: Yo La Tengo, The Clientele, Mercury Rev, The Velvet Underground, Television, Apples in Stereo, Big Star

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The Roofwalkers – Port of Call

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The Roofwalkers – Chin Music

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The Roofwalkers – Cut Every Corner

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Mike Mineo

 
I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound. I used to write for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine. Send your music to [email protected].