WATERDEEP have put out some random stuff over the last few years. Most of their musical shape-shifting and personnel changes were probably the result of cutting back most of their shows (they are a fearsome live act with two great live records to document it) and focusing on family life with two small children (founding members Don and Lori Chaffer are a husband/wife team). After seven years without a legitimately “new” studio record, 2006 saw the release of Heart Attack Time Machine, an acoustic musical document that left out the Chaffers’ bandmates. It was charming in its simplicity and context, but sounded isolated. It garnered Waterdeep a certain “Sufjan Stevens” credibility (mostly due to its volume and use of abstract items as instruments), but came out half-baked, essentially two solo EPs strung together.
I still hold to that assessment, though I find myself faithfully going back to it. And in Heart Attack’s defense, the criticism that a Waterdeep record sounds like a solo effort might actually be a compliment: Lori’s 1beginning is one of the most underrated female alt-pop albums to surface in recent times and Don’s solo work (especially the Beck-ish Khrusty Brothers project, featured in Patrol’s top 50 albums of 2008) is nothing short of stellar. But when the Waterdeep moniker shows up on a record, there is always a cult of “swim team fans” who bring their preconceived notions to the table.
Fair enough. The band has a reputation to live up to, although they’ve always carried a confident amount of side-winding surprise to their records. Sink or Swim gave us the wrenching, introspective “18 Bullet Holes,” but also the dizzy-carnival trip “Legend of Vertigo.” Everyone’s Beautiful gave us the classic “Sweet River Roll,” yet also featured a masked wall-of-(giant)-guitar-blues epic, “Confessions of a Broken Down Man.” Don has been very careful to ensure his band never repeats itself, so the inevitable questions about what’s next has been looming for quite some time.
Fortunately, the music on Pink & Blue is on par with Waterdeep’s best, finally bringing back the rock elements that have been missing for years. The presence of Brandon Graves (long-time Waterdeep drummer) adds a new-found urgency and vitality to the compositions, and Don and Lori’s songwriting has blossomed in their off-season. The confetti-induced, hand clapping “Life of the Party” is their most raucous jam since “Wicked Web,” and Lori’s gripping vocal performance is mesmerizing. This is the sound of a band that is more interested in having a good time than fronting a marketable pose, but the end result is one of the strongest single contenders Waterdeep has ever recorded. The chorus is bigger than New York City and Don’s weird Arcade Fire-channelled BGVs put it over the top. “Okay, Okay, Yeah” is slightly more familiar territory that has an irresistibly hummable hook from Don with a bouncing riff that floats happiness like a cloud.
Of course, if Waterdeep is known for any one thing, it would have to be their poetic, introspective indulgences, and Pink & Blue offers its fair share of quiet burners like the desperately aching “I Rolled Into New Year’s Eve” and the piano/percussion epic “Oh.” When Waterdeep is hitting their stride, they’re a band to be absorbed–the kind of music that deserves attention, reflection, dissection, and contemplation.
But all is not sugar and charm here. The greatest critical error here is the decision to split Pink & Blue into two discs–Pink is Lori’s 7-song front half, and Blue is Don’s 6-song back end. I can’t fully grasp why Waterdeep would do this to us, but I imagine the backlash against Heart Attack Time Machine has something to do with it. The trouble is these songs shouldn’t be heard in a “solo” context. The dichotomy distracts from the album as a whole, and it really shouldn’t be considered a technical album as much as a double EP (like the latest Thrice work). Thankfully Don and Lori have a presence on each other’s individual songs, but the album steers toward isolation yet again because of what they likely thought was a clever marketing decision. This is a crying shame. Thank God for CD burners … I’ll come up with my own track list and fix the lineup myself.
The other problem with Pink & Blue is that there are simply too many sketches and short-changed songs. It’s hard to excuse 3 of the 13 tracks here being under a minute long. “Do The Dance” is only marginally longer (clocking in at a whopping 1:09), but Lori’s intoxicating grace makes it easily forgivable. I understand that quantity doesn’t equal quality, and there is a fine art to crafting intelligent short songs. But seriously, give us some jams.
Occasional misdirection aside, if you’re a fan of whimsical alt-pop, you’ll find a great friend in Pink & Blue, as this still manages to be Waterdeep’s most solid effort since their classic Sink or Swim.
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