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It’s a gutsy move to name your band after a Can song, but on Paperhaus’ self-titled debut LP, its members mostly live up to the moniker. Paperhaus is a solid conglomeration of what the D.C. mainstays do best—shaggy-haired, solo-happy ‘70s rock and experimental krautpop—with some minor tweaks.
The group’s production has never been cleaner or clearer, shifting Paperhaus’ focus away from the jangle-y haze of 2013’s wonderful Lo Hi Lo EP and toward a sound that feels muscular in a Josh Homme kind of way. Paperhaus is also the band’s most concise statement by a country mile, an album where the band has finally figured out how to honor its wide array of influences—which range from Townes Van Zandt on 2011’s self-titled EP to R.E.M. on Lo Hi Lo—while maintaining a sonic consistency throughout.
Still, the record could use some trimming. A few of its tracks, like the goth-leaning “Surrender” and the slow blues burn of “Misery,” riff on a single melody past its freshness date. “Misery” is particularly confounding; it feels like it ought to soundtrack a Mexican standoff in a lost John Wayne film, with its seven-plus minutes of wacky suspense, howling vocals, and bursts of noise like an unexpected revolver shot. But it also lacks momentum and direction. The tightrope between purposeful linearity and monotony is a tough one to walk, and the band hasn’t completely mastered the skill. Too often, Paperhaus seems bent on reaching some sort of avant-garde nirvana, even when its songs don’t seem to call for it.
So it’s no big surprise that Paperhaus is at its best when the band doesn’t sound like it’s trying too hard, like on the gorgeous, string-laden “432”—which, delivering all the sorrow of a mid-afternoon sigh, could almost pass for a Bedhead song—and the swaying “I’ll Send It To You,” where Alex Tebeleff croons, “I hope you’ll find/Some memories to hold behind.”
However, a question of individuality looms large. Paperhaus is a fine album that sums up everything Tebeleff and his rotating cast of musicians have made in previous years, yet the band still hasn’t fleshed out its own distinct voice. It can sound like R.E.M., it can sound like Townes Van Zandt, and sometimes, as on this record, it can put both of them together quite well. Paperhaus has the talent to more than emulate its wide array of artistic heroes, but Paperhaus sometimes feels like it should be accompanied by an elaborately drawn music history web.
The record peaks with the album’s first single and opening track, “Cairo,” where the band sounds most in control of its experimental leanings. It’s also the most Can-like of everything here, with its unflinching percussive drive and deftly executed dynamic shifts. Thanks to songs like this, Paperhaus manages to nearly meet the lofty expectations of both its influences and its name. Maybe next time, it’ll transcend them completely.
Paperhaus plays 9:30 Club Saturday, Feb. 7.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this review referred to Alex Tebeleff as the album’s lead songwriter. The album was written by the entire band.