Since their 2003 debut (Chain Gang of Love), Danish indie rock duo The Raveonettes have focused pretty heavily on their image. Their fusion of 50s and 60s pop aesthetic (Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo straddling motorcycles on the album cover) with dark, gothy pink and black color schemes and B-movie poster fonts demanded attention, even when their similar fusion of gothy rock and traditional pop wasn’t quite as slick. As the years have passed, they’ve noticeably downplayed the dronier, Velvet Underground-style psych-rock that they’d previously pushed, instead brandishing a fuzzy alt and goth 80s look back at simple pop melodies.
The band’s last album, 2009′s In and Out of Control, garnered mixed reviews from critics, but got a pretty good buzz going, in part thanks to being featured on that bastion of proper taste, Gossip Girl. While it did feature a few pop gems, the album suffered from a sort of bland moodlessness, a lack of identity in the music of a band previously so canny in their control of distinct mood and image. While making another record that’d get you a spot on a hot teen melodrama might have seemed like the obvious choice, the duo instead have returned a good dose of darkness (specifically in the shade of Robert Smith’s eyeliner) to the mixture.
It’s telling that the album opens with a track called “Recharge & Revolt”. Its overlong intro, composed of steel-glinting synth stabs and shuddering drums, is looking to stir up a riot. The shoegazing is at its best here, fuzzy, distant vocals tottering about over a glistening, metallic mountain. The track builds for nearly six minutes, never quite hitting a climactic point. That said, its aimless wall of sound is pretty enough to distract from the lack of knockout punch.
“War in Heaven”, on the other hand, has all of the cinematic big-ness that “Recharge” lacks. Again, there’s a long intro, this time of twinkling, angular guitars and metallic, staccato percussion. As Foo’s vocals come in to the mix, distant, glockenspiel style synth plinks act as the sole backing, a pale fragility amongst the aggressive bass, razor guitar lines, and clacking drums that follow through the rest of the track. After a bridge that sounds like their synths are falling down a flight of stairs, the song returns to its core briefly before building to a fuzzy cacophony.
The best connection to the band’s new sound might be the lipstick goth of The Cure plastered over in the fuzzy stylings of the Jesus and Mary Chain. That isn’t to say, though, that the band’s past sonic palettes have completely fallen to the wayside. “Forget That You’re Young” relies heavily on the girl group vocal lines that past records had, the aggressively inorganic synth and simple, repetitive lyrics marrying sweetly. Moreover, in true Raveonettes fashion, even the simplest, honest, most emotional tracks (this one about the light fragility of young love) still somehow sounds distant, posed.
The wandering, underwater guitar line and menacing, ricocheting drumbeat of “Apparitions” follows, a hollow sort of gothic pop track. “Summer Moon” finds the duo again aiming for the aching, darkly fragile tone that they’d set out for earlier, moaning vocals and soft, slow guitar lines knitting together. “Let Me On Out” immediately follows, a little too slow to find much foothold. The track sounds like a Best Coast song slowed down 200 or 300 percent, and then played through tinny speakers. “Ignite” takes 90s alt rock, adds new wave synth drumming, and Foo’s vocals are mixed a little more forward than they are, typically. The clever use of strings at the song’s climactic guitar solo bridge gives the song a little more scope, while the vocal delivery is slightly reminiscent of Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt.
While some of the darker pieces sound a bit raw (perhaps it’s just shaking off rust, or bringing an old piece of the puzzle back into the fold), it’s good to hear The Raveonettes returning to some of their past strengths. Without the Psychocandy fuzz, without the goth-y synths, they return to the background a bit as just another pop band pounding out simple tracks about love and loss. Raven in the Grave is a step in the right direction, to be sure, but the melodies aren’t quite as fresh on this album and the songs often lack the soundtrack-y emotional wallop that older albums relied on.