The Rosebuds' four-LP discography has been like a series of Rorschach tests: Which album is best depends on what perspective you apply. For me, the duo's 2003 debut Make Out remains a high watermark, since it has the simplest songs, the clearest production and the least lulls. Others champion the moodier variety of 2005's Birds Make Good Neighbors or the '80s gloss of 2007's Night of the Furies. I can't fault the group for trying on different costumes, but Make Out still feels closest to the unadorned, jeans-and-T-shirt band I loved the first time I saw them.
The Rosebuds' fourth album, Life Like, isn't a return to Make Out-style simplicity, but the torn jeans and faded T-shirts are starting to poke back through the New Wave getups. Sure, there are gobs of reverb-heavy vocals, layered keyboard and ringing guitar. But there's something more direct about the songs Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have crafted here. Beams of melodic light consistently shine through the production fog: On its surface, "Border Guards" is almost all smoke and mirrors built by echoing acoustic strums and chiming electric chords. Howard's drifting voice rides the track's waves like a surfer lying on his back, staring at the sun while the tide pulls him in. Yet the melody is what really crests. It's a simple, beatific tune, sticking in your head long after the mood has floated back out to sea.
Life Like is filled with such gems. On the chugging "Cape Fear," Crisp purrs about catfish that can eat men over Howard's descending chords. Acoustic jangles help ground the dreamy "Another Way In," whose ethereal guitar and bittersweet sentiments ("If you don't love me now/ I'll die from inside out") evoke the sky-gaze of '80s 4AD bands like Lush and Belly. Even "Hello Darlin'," an instrumental ditty replete with back-porch whistling, charms with a simple, summer-breeze aura.
Lyrically, Life Like is hard to pin down, but there's a sense of resignation and fatality to the words here, as if the music were too expressive to be weighed down by any specific verbiage. In "Nice Fox," Howard weaves a tale of a fox and a barn that sounds cautionary, maybe even allegorical, but every other line claims that "It don't mean nothing at all." Most fun is "Bow to the Middle," which sounds like a sock-hop written for a satantic ritual. As Crisp commands the listener to "walk to the middle and bow to the middle," Howard suggests that the devil's voice is too sincere to convey lies: "If you dance to the devil's voice, you're the devil too."
Life Like concludes with "In the Backyard," a swaying yarn about preachers digging into front lawns late at night. Gentle guitars, ghostly moans and Howard's reassuring voice turn this horror-film plot into a cloudy lullaby. It's a fitting way to end a record that takes everything in stride, as if life can be summed by simple melodies and soaring sounds.
Marc Masters is a freelance music writer based in Arlington, Va. His work also appears in Pitchfork Media, The Wire, Baltimore City Paper and Signal to Noise. His first book, No Wave, is out now via Black Dog Publishing.