Ah, the curse of the sophomore album. Performers, critics, and fans alike are all keenly aware of the pressure that often plagues musicians with the follow-up to an inspired debut. Apply too much creative zeal in your chrysalis, and you’re likely to be flogged by listeners for circumvention – those who fell for MGMT’s surging synthpop on Oracular Spectacular and were then left beguiled by the retro prog-rock of Congratulations know this story well. If, on the other hand, you merely reproduce the formula that turned heads in the first place, then you’re derided as a talentless mercenary, cashing in before the ephemeral glow of your success dissipates for good. It’s a cruel world, indeed.
Luckily, Colin Pate and his Philly band Ladies Auxiliary need not concern themselves with the quandaries addressed above; the group strikes that elusive balance of the familiar and the vanguard on its expansive new album, On the Shadow. It also probably goes without saying that Ladies Auxiliary has, for the moment, not acquired the notoriety of an MGMT or a Fleet Foxes – not yet, anyway.
All of the hallmarks of the Ladies’ summer 2011 debut are still intact on this latest LP; there’s nary a song without a showcase of pedal steel, vibraphone, scrappy drum machines, or the economical timbres of a Casio keyboard. The record is also infused with lavish amounts of vocal harmonies and reverb that lend several of the songs a mild modicum 1960s West Coast nostalgia, not unlike the aesthetic being touted by acts such as Best Coast and Wavves. And yet for all of its familiarity, On the Shadow is a very disparate record from My Side of the Mountain; the song structures are less concise, the atmospheres are more opaque, and the hooks display greater immediacy. The result is a 10-song cycle that champions both hook-laden melodicism and psychedelic meandering. In its finest moments, the album is a halcyon union of ragged alt-country and Beach Boys-inspired California pop.
Opening track “Mysterious House” doesn’t really hint at the enterprising flourish proffered by later tracks – this one’s all woozy pedal steel guitar licks, breezy keyboard harmonies, and gauzy falsetto vocals. Then comes “Another Chance,” which boasts everything from Fleet Foxes-approved vocal harmonizations to mallet percussion melodies that could’ve been among the tossed off clips from the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions. The first of many songs to explore roomier sonic terrain, “Another Chance” dials down the rhythmic energy to make way for texture, where pulsing keyboard drones and scattered percussion fragments can float through the ether. Though not quite as bombastic as a Flaming Lips track, this song does share that band’s penchant for blurry psychedelia, where strains of a harp ripple across the mix and singer Colin Pate’s lyrics (“C’mon c’mon / watch all the sutures dissolve”) encourage the hypnotic milieu.
“Break His Maiden” is another early standout cut, with wordless vocals and icy percussion timbres that make themselves fitting companions for the abundant blues riffs and acoustic guitar strums. Alternately anxious and assuaged, the song deftly displays how to manage ambiences that veer from spectral to comforting. “Girl from Rock Hill” is notably the first track to draw attention to the rhythm section, where a propulsive bass groove provides the foundation for cyclical guitar hooks, and coalescing lap steel lines. Set in a minor key, the compositions is both pensive and beckoning, sentiments only enhanced by Pate’s lyrics (“You let me pretend that I was dancing”) and a grating tremolo effect on the keyboards. “There’s a Cure” takes a step further away from the Americana and alt-country the band continuously flirted with throughout My Side of the Mountain, eschewing acoustic predilections for an unrelenting club groove and rumbling bass – the urban swagger is palpable.
At nearly seven minutes, “Darryl” is perhaps the most rewarding example of Ladies Auxiliary’s recent advancements in songwriting. Sprawled across seven minutes, the structure doesn’t even begin to materialize until the track is nearly 25% over, when looping guitar countermelodies begin to intertwine with the grinding keyboard drones and Tom Scheponik’s twinkling vibe patterns. To their credit, the band completely staves off any catharsis that is naturally implied by the incessant drum machine clatter and electronic thrum; release is never fully realized. True to the claims of the Ladies’ press release, “Darryl” exudes a subtle Eno influence, where undulating textures are repetitively applied to generate something more like a soundscape than a song. Obviously attuned to the importance of track sequencing, the group finally allows for respite on “I Haven’t Been,” where a Chris Martin-styled piano elegy eventually forms into a soporific amalgam of harp arpeggios and yawning slide guitar harmonies.
The hasty release of On the Shadow caught Ladies Auxiliary by surprise; what began as a few new tracks had unsuspectingly mutated into a full album by summer’s end. Hearing such progress from this act in just a matter of months is almost as gratifying as the record itself. If Ladies Auxiliary keeps moving at this pace, they’ll never have to worry about a slump.