West coast band Desolation Wilderness’s new album on K Records is called New Universe. The band’s name and album title both call to mind vast spaces of impersonal purity filled with vitality and force. These ten tracks do well by those images, radiating optimism and innocence, while sounding simultaneously descended directly from the lineage of classic Pacific Northwest indie rockers and blissed out, effects peddlers. The immediately striking thing about the music on New Universe is its ability to straddle the line between chimy-chord, picked-riff, indie rock, and something much more stubbornly hazy and blurred. It takes the best of both worlds without conforming to either, and the band ends up with a unique sound all its own.
New Universe starts up with a half minute of soundchecking instrumental atmosphere, and when I first listened I was immediately afraid I was in for a long listen of plodding, jazzy art-rock. But at the 30-second mark of opening track “Venice Beach,” I was set at ease as all the instruments began to beat in unison to accompany a chiming riff. The album doesn’t really look back from that point, feeling at times jaunty, at others swaggering, but always tuneful and cruising forward. The production aesthetic throughout the album is pleasantly hazy with backgrounded and undecipherable vocals, making it a spiritual brother to Lotus Plaza’s recently released The Floodlight Collective, while the guitar sound is often reminiscent of the late, great Galaxie 500. With so many effects deployed, and with drone elements deep in the mixes, there’s a temptation to lump this in with the shoegazers, but these songs are too nimble to really qualify. These are pop rock songs in curious clothing. The overall effect of the production is to create music which paradoxically sounds muted but bright, like watching the sun rise through a glass bottle.
With tempos ranging from mid- to low-, this album won’t pump you up, but lives more in a realm of wide-awake relaxation, suited to beach parties, nights on the deck with friends, or cruising down the highway with the window down going nowhere in particular. It should be noted that while the lyrics are pretty difficult to make out, aside from a phrase here or there, the vocals are sweetly understated, crooned in a manner both detached and yearning. Singer/bandleader Nicolaas Zwart’s voice is marked by the conceit of youth when one desires great things but feels like there’s enough time to sit around and wait for those great things to happen while soaking in the contentment of directionlessness.
Album highlight “Satellite Song” is exemplary of the swoon and swagger on display throughout New Universe, starting off with some wispy guitar, then some laid back droney stabs of chords before the main riff seems to stumble in like it’s being played in another room and is only audible through an air-conditioning vent. That description doesn’t sound glamorous, but the effect is, with the music flitting around like the cool cat you know who seems charismatically loose and barely under control, but also soothing and genuine. “Slow Fade” keeps the swagger but ups the giddiness with a quick, sparkling riff. “No Tomorrow” ends things on a quickened, concise note, as if all the bopping around and pensive reflection of earlier tracks was just an enjoyable sidetrack from a more simple and purposive pursuit.
On an album this consistent, it feels futile to pick out one song over another. They all display a band confident in their abilities and comfortable with their aesthetic choices, not needing to bang people over the head with any attention-grabbing gimmicks. The fluidity of the music allows for interpretive wiggle room. New Universe sounds like a great, sun-slowed summer album, but I can also see it playing into the feel of other seasons, making for a subdued autumn album or a twinkling winter album. No matter what time of year, these are great tunes, and right now, this band is in the zone.