On its 2007 self-titled debut, Chapel Hill's Nathan Oliver—the songs of Nathan White, plus violist Mark Lebetkin—painted itself like a chameleon, camouflaging modest hooks in an assortment of manifold, shifting indie pop backdrops. Lebetkin left the Triangle in August, and White and a revolving cast of sidemen now comprise Nathan Oliver. All the same, though, the band's second LP, Cloud Animals, flows naturally from the first, its 11 tracks coloring a kaleidoscope of diverse and solid—if not always immediate—pop-rock.
Vaudevillian opener "Icicles for Fingers" introduces the variety show. A carnival barker's insistent cries totter over a rickety snare track, hell-bent and careening between distant trumpet moans and delayed guitar lines. The closing title cut offers the other pole, though, its ukulele, piano and glockenspiel creating a playful environment of childlike innocence. In between, it's anybody's guess: "State Lines Pt. 3," the eulogy after part one's long-distance love song, ambles elegantly along a brushed snare shuffle. The song floats over gentle viola swoops, clean-plucked electric guitar and a strummed acoustic. The driving "Playground Lies" is propelled by urgent electric licks traded between White and producer Zeno Gill, backed by Billy Alphin's taut drumming. "Red Panda," three minutes of organ swells and garage rock swagger, sits between the acoustic strums and piano of "How Small We Have Become" and the bare, delicate instrumental "Leaf Spine." Even on the album's missteps ("How Small We Have Become" and "Under Lock and Key" come a bit too close to Conor Oberst's waver for White to stake his own identity), contrast makes for a consistently interesting listen.
The songs sometimes work through similar juxtaposition, too: Refrains abetted by handclaps, lighthearted backing vocals and a touch of glockenspiel define the sunny, pastoral bounce of "French Press," opposing the song's caliginous verses. On the bleak, menacing lament "A Dark History," though, the words match the instrumentation in painting a haunting picture of death by hanging: "As you hang there gasping untruths/ just as your tendons give way and come loose." Such lyrical depth serves Nathan Oliver well, adding heft to another diverse batch of pop tunes that don't rely on catchy choruses and hooks alone.
Nathan Oliver plays a CD release show Saturday, March 7, at Local 506. Schooner and The Proclivities open at 9:30 p.m. The $7 cover charge includes a copy of Cloud Animals.