When it came time for Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo of The Raveonettes
to begin work on their latest effort, the two succumbed to the allure the west coast had always held for the band members. “…Observator
was supposed to be our Los Angeles album,” Wagner said of the band’s sixth full-length. When Wagner was diagnosed with clinical depression while recovering from a back injury and needed to escape the partying lifestyle and other contributory distractions, the two decided to give in to the irresistible pull of the Pacific.
Unfortunately, instead of sunshine, clean air, and good vibes, Wagner was confronted with dread and despair and a wicked loneliness that eventually led to him repeating similar patterns of drinking and substance abuse. His ability to focus and concentrate on writing was thrown to the wayside. Any inspiration he was lucky to have was fleeting at best and often instigated through encounters with the people he’d meet while out at night. It’s no wonder then that much of the music on Observator, though at times lush and often layered in a dreamy sonic haze, overflows with a dreary sadness.
After self-producing their last three albums, Wagner and Foo returned to working with their mentor, Richard Gottehrer. Known for his work with Blondie, the Go-Gos, and Richard Hell, Gottehrer had worked with the Raveonettes previously, producing Chain Gang of Love, the band’s first full-length, and Pretty In Black, an album often considered demonstrative of the band losing direction. Whereas on Chain Gang of Love Gottehrer (with Alan Moulder mixing) was able to capture and help the duo fully realize the promise they hinted at on their debut ep Whip It On, the production on Pretty In Black resulted in a glossy but subdued collection sans any of the danger and excitement of their earlier material.
Falling well in between either extreme, the music on Observator is based on lessons and paths already taken by the band, such as continuing to use delay effects and feedback to enhance their dark blanket of gloom; when held next to their catalog chronologically the journey to this point is clearly laid out. Unfortunately, despite featuring instrumental and choral hooks that could easily develop into full-on radio hits as on initial single “Observations”, the Foo-led “The Enemy”, and the gorgeous “Curse the Night”, there are just as many moments where the duo sound bored.
Perhaps that’s a result of Wagner and Foo consciously seeking to add a new dimension other than a change of venue to their music. Taken by the “glorious, gloomy sound” of the piano and having never worked with the instrument before, Wagner immediately began to incorporate it into his songwriting. Used sparingly on the album’s opener, “Young and Cold”, the piano appears bridging stanzas before it crawls up out of static to slowly close the number with a sense of uncertainty. The tension continues into the next track as a piano not only provides the main theme for “Observations”, but carries the bridge with no other accompaniment before being enveloped in a haze of distortion.
Despite the intermittent appearance of piano, guitars are still the primary weapon of choice. Whether it’s the simple strumming on “Young and Cold”, the luring hypnotic looping that layers atop an insistent beat on “Curse the Night” (before their lush titular harmonies fully ensnare you), the Lush-like features of “Sinking With the Sun” (a track that will have you reaching Lovelife before its end), or the jangly feedback pop of “Downtown”, Observator is a gorgeous guitar album.
However, despite standout moments within most of the songs, nothing on this album except perhaps the closing number, “Till the End”, truly stands out as recognizably Raveonettes, and that’s probably because it’s the one track on the album that gives a nod toward the Raveonettes’ ubiquitous influence: the Jesus and Mary Chain. Far too often during the course of Observator, regardless if it was after the first listen or the twentieth, I found myself thinking of other artists like the Legends (“Downtown”, “Till the End”), Lush (“Sinking With the Sun”), Neko Case and Bethany Constantino (“Young and Cold”), and maybe even a touch of the Primitives more often than I thought of the Raveonettes. I like what the Raveonettes are doing on Observator; I just wish they could find a way to make it more their own.
Essential Tracks: “Curse the Night”, “Downtown”