California Wives think big. That’s not to say that their debut LP, Art History, operates under some overzealous concept or employs 200 musicians. The four members of the Chicago band are definitive in their style, meshing atmospheric textures with stadium rock guitar parts — a New Wave-inspired outfit who knows that they are just that, and they intend to make the most out of it. In a live setting, it can thrill – even earn the attention and an opening invitation from Peter Hook himself last year. On record, it’s a band that loves both U2 and the Cocteau Twins’ very different methods of crafting “big” sounds so much that they naturally decided to replicate both at the same time.
For the majority of Art History, the result is just about as formulaic as that proposal sounds. Each of the album’s 11 tracks look up towards bright lights and tall buildings, but instead of reaching out for them, they stand in awe of all the pretty colors (“Purple”, “Blood Red Youth”) and brightness (“Light Year”, “Photolights”) of the big city (“Los Angeles”, “Tokyo”).
The disc steadily loses steam after its first two tracks. “Blood Red Youth” and “Tokyo” combine for eight minutes of the most tense and driven indie pop Art History has to offer, making for a perfect demonstration of the potential this band didn’t quite realize later in the set. It’s here where it feels like something profound could be in the works, and the contrived efforts to re-achieve that profundity immediately follow.
Disappointing cuts such as “Los Angeles” and “Better Home” tend to the later, more complacent years of alternative-turned-adult contemporary mainstays like Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers, and Silversun Pickups. Jimmy Eat World is the prominent standard bearer on those tracks than the prime years of New Wave and shoegaze veins that California Wives are capable of tapping into. Hopefully, frontman Jayson Kramer and Co. can learn from the mistake of going big for big’s sake when they begin work on the ever-critical sophomore effort, as their live show proves they’re capable of so much more.
Essential Tracks: “Blood Red Youth”, “Tokyo”