Some bands make you listen to an entire album before fully revealing themselves. Fortunately, Caveman don’t keep you waiting long on their third full-length, Otero War, revealing a full hand within the first few minutes. On album opener “Never Going Back”, frontman Matt Iwanusa declares that he’ll “Change my mind just to see what’s new.” Moments later, on “Life or Just Living,” he offers a similar revelation: “How come you always keep starting over? It’s just the way I am.”
Change is certainly this Brooklyn quintet’s modus operandi. When they debuted with 2011’s CoCo Beware, they fell firmly in the category of more sentimental indie pop folk. Just two years later, for 2013’s self-titled affair, the band experimented with bits of ambiance and bigger song structures, really amplifying their inherent sound. Otero War is another step in that sonic evolution, finding a middle ground between tamer sounds and grander aspirations.
That approach is best exemplified by “Never Going Back”, a rush of Springsteen-ian passion, clawing at the walls of loneliness and looking for a way out, wrapped in the satiny sheen of romantic harmonies and glitzy synth grooves. It’s the kind of music that, whether purposeful or not, feels decidedly more mainstream than Caveman’s past efforts. As if there was this concerted effort to reach a wider audience with songs that emphasize more accessible soundscapes (with plenty of elegant instrumentation and solid vocal interplay) and a consistency that’s never derivative. It’s an enjoyable result, but it’s unclear whether the album will help the band reach that next echelon — in terms of career success, but also their creative maturation and whether this ever-shifting style is worth the effort and risk.
When it works, the 12-track effort is clever and impactful. “On My Own” manages to combine every sad sack pub rock jam with dance pop grooves, a little ditty with real depth and weight. “Life or Just Living” is perhaps the best Killers song never released, and hits that same glitzy indie pop groove without sounding like a complete rip-off. “Believe” could have melted into a sappy mess of a ballad, but the steady pacing and slow-burning guitars keep it soaring.
More than the actual songs, the band’s biggest success comes in producing a relatively cohesive concept album. Oh, you didn’t know this was a concept album? They’ve consistently discussed it via this extra nerdy writeup, talking about finding some “archaic apparatus” that could end the titular war. It’s not exactly some Styx-esque narrative masterpiece, and most of the “concept” is touching on shared themes like heartache, entrapment, and escaping fractured love affairs. However, it’s not overwhelming, and that’s hugely important for its effective consumption.
As consistent as they remain throughout, more nuance could have helped. There are stretches, like the span between “West” and “Human”, where the record all felt like one giant run-on sentence. While Otero War does benefit from some adjustments, there are times when Caveman pull too far back from CoCo. “The State of Mind” plays like a bad imitation of Enya, too restrained for its own good. “Over the Hills” meets a similar fate, and the band play it too safe by keeping everything so neat. The overall concept didn’t need to be some Tolkien-level effort with its own language and extended history, but the paucity of detail and terse structure often leaves you play the guessing game, and without research you might even miss it entirely.
Emotions and feelings are generated clearly, but more overt references to specific story elements (characters, settings, plot) would carry Otero War to another level. Otherwise, it’s hard to shake the notion that this sounds just like another breakup album. Otero War puts Caveman on pace to be a new Killers or The Gaslight Anthem. Whether that achievement was their intent, it should let them at least continue their exploration. It’s those future efforts that will ultimately decide if Caveman becomes a prominent band or a bunch of dudes wandering aimlessly through ideas.
Essential Tracks: “Never Going Back”, “Life or Just Living”, and “On My Own”