I remember seeing Rosebuds for the first time, opening for someone at a big club, around eight years ago, knowing nothing about them. But they instantly struck you as a complete, effortless package of songs, looks and stage presence. A fetching couple fronting a tastefully forceful band, porch-pop played with a hint of Serge Gainsbourg-like suave, and the innate, suspicious, Southern “charm” of their North Carolina homebase. There was a faint friction palpable between singer/guitarist Ivan Howard and keyboardist/singer Kelly Crisp that added something like tension. They beat whoever it was who headlined the show; and their album of that moment, Birds Make Good Neighbors, was a mini masterpiece of romantic indie pop. The follow-up, Night Of The Furies, garnered a few more fans from its appropriation of light, vintage disco beats, a wider mix of moods and even more crystalline engineering. Then Life Like and the sadder, slightly more varied Loud Planes Fly Low went guitar hook-centric again.
There was a moment there, right around 2007, when couple-led swoon pop like Rosebuds—Brunettes, Georgie James, Matt & Kim— looked to add a little smart chapeau and shined shoes charm to indie rock. Rosebuds survived that bump, but remain a fringe-of-NPR mystery, never attaining the profile of a mope machine like the Shins. Perhaps due to infrequent touring habits and long lapses between albums, and sans the kind of ceaseless Soundcloud drops we’ve come to (probably unfairly) expect from bands. And there were no doubt some romantic entanglements that had Howard mint julep medicate his writer’s block at times. Well after about three years, they’re back and as swoon-swelled as ever.
Rosebuds have a smooth, beyond approachable, ear-massaging loveliness, this time honed with a production clarity of near Steely Dan-like proportions, if on an indie level. Instrumentation remains fairly minimal, delicately played and mixed to perfection. Which, given our noisy world, might not be considered “approachable” anymore, it might seem odd, or at the least without that ever-groped for “edge.”
The opener, In My Teeth, and its simple-tricky chorus shows you Howard is capable of tweaking his melodies a bit. A little harmonica and simple synth on Wait a Minute makes an interesting pair. Mine Mine is Mersey Beat digi-updated. Walking has the spritely strumming acoustic pep of the similarly underappreciated Aztec Camera. The pretty, strolling Give Me a Reason, with its dry moping that might appeal to the National fans, asks to “Give me a reason…I’ve got a heart that needs reminding.” Okay, so here’s a reminder that the Rosebuds used to employ a little more guy/girl vocal sparring, and they should incorporate that more. Howard doesn’t seem to be shy of any other traditional soft rock moves, so duets shouldn’t be excluded. Like Esse Quarn Videri that benefits from some harmonizing. Then it goes disco dancing again, or at least disco club standing around and watching the lovelies sway. The keys and beat make it all swerve into ‘80s yacht rock territory, the children of Starbuck gone dancing at a small, sort of sad college town niteclub. That collab with Mac DeMarco on a cover of Sweet Freedom can’t be far off.
The rockabilly beats of Death Of An Old Bike and Blue Eyes that force the guitars to get a little ragged and Howard to loosen up a bit might be a good way for the band to go should they decide to give up on this whole tastefully rendered songcraft thing. The dapper doo-wop of Looking For reminds one of the ‘50s melodies Howard subtly spins into his work, and the synth-sway that carries this ditty up and away, stretching the ’50s to an icy planet somewhere, is maybe another path to follow?
There’s always been a kind of cold distancing deep in Rosebuds’ music and lyrics that otherwise seem to want to tug at your heart. Sand + Silence does feel a little warmer somehow, as tempos mostly swing, and Howard has relaxed some of his weepy, lump-in-throat tinges, and sounds quite content and ready to get out there again. I realize “content,” “pristine” and “tasteful” are not words that get most people scurrying to their apps, or whatever constitutes passionate musical accumulation anymore. (“Produced by Justin Vernon” might.) But some bands are just too perfectly rendered for this crass planet. And so by the end of Sand + Silence, Tiny Bones finds chirping crickets, a barely plinked piano, and the Rosebuds having retreated to the porch again, sun’s down, some pal brought over a banjo, and isn’t that perfectly precious. At this point you kind of want to smack Howard across the face a couple times—one for how effortlessly this guy can sing so well and lay out such lovely tunes; another for maybe snapping him out of his now over-chiseled love tune dormancy into something just a bit more fractured. Someone break this guy’s heart again, please.