Unfortunately, according to its Facebook bio and Bandcamp profile, Young Rapids is an art-rock band. The genre, which has become a catch-all for lazy music journalists, is a trap for bands: It asks us to rule on whether the music has transcended the tawdry, unimaginative depths of rock music to become that meaningful expression of the human condition we call art. Where most bands can regurgitate rock tropes without much consequence or scrutiny, self-proclaimed art-rock bands have an unfairly high bar to clear. For Young Rapids, one of the city’s most talented indie-rock bands, that’s a shame.
The D.C. four-piece was already one of the city’s more sonically ambitious bands before Pretty Ugly, its latest record, which does a lot to improve on the shakier parts of 2012’s Day Light Savings. The production is better on the new release—put on some decent headphones and listen to the bassline on “Odd Numbers” or the crispness of the percussion on any of the record’s tracks. The songwriting is bolder, too; where Day Light Savings served up pleasant, somewhat formulaic dream pop laden with synth, toms, and reverb, the latest batch of songs shows a band trying to create a new sound altogether.
What’s unusual and occasionally frustrating about the record, though, is how deliberately disjointed its songs are. There are time changes tacked onto “Someone Help The Ghost” and “Ugly” with about a minute left in each song. Coupled with noticeable dynamic shifts, this gives both songs a suite-like quality, despite the fact that neither run over four-and-a-half minutes.
These abrupt structural shifts make the music as surprising and compelling on the second listen as it is on the first. But they may also be disorienting enough that some listeners might not give the record a second listen at all. Clarity and brevity are often what make good pop music artful and infectious.
And while many songs on the record are multidimensional, the individual parts don’t break free of lanes already carved by noteworthy groups. Indeed, the music often takes unexpected turns into well-trodden territory. “Pretty,” for one, transforms from a drone-y Trouble-lite rock cut into a cathartic, Explosions In The Sky waltz-tempo anthem in less than a minute. Neither of these sections are particularly unpleasant, but they are familiar. They haven’t been reinvented so much as dropped unexplained into a new context.
This is not a critique of the band’s musicianship, nor is it to say that the album doesn’t offer beautiful moments or some fantastic hooks—highlights like “Odd Numbers” and “Melt” have both. But the band’s broad musical strokes occasionally bury some of its finer details. Solid pop melodies and interesting intros, outros, and refrains are abandoned too frequently for bigger, cymbal-crashing moments. While these may play well live, some of the most satisfying parts of the album are its more restrained verses.
Intentional or not, Pretty Ugly is a competition of artistic ideas with divergent interests: Multi-part suites lead into songs with one or two simple melodies; effects-laden choruses bump up against sections stripped of all instrumentation save a piano; vocals inflected in a familiar way falter and change. Not every moment works, but Young Rapids’ sonic stitching belies talents that might, one day, make art rock a label worth embracing.
Young Rapids play the Rock & Roll Hotel on March 7.