Silly as it now seems, mp3 blogs once seemed like the last great hope for rock’s meritocratic future. But then the music delivery format quickly became obsolete the way music formats always do, replaced by streaming services, suggestion algorithms, and humbly posted YouTube clips. Did it matter at all? In a recent essay dismissing the mid-00s sound blogs once championed, Grantland critic Steven Hyden used hype victims like Voxtrot and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to paint the period as an ultimately meaningless footnote. Though his take feels kind of deserved, it ignores the more seldom clicked-on stuff too weird to to have its value inflated, however briefly, by soft consensus. A Sunny Day in Glasgow didn’t become one of the bands that defined indie rock’s blog era, but as one of the most original rock groups of the last decade, they probably should have.
Since 2006 the band’s lineup has constantly shifted around songwriter Ben Daniels, who started the project in Philadelphia and has been its only constant since moving to Australia in 2009. Band members have been mostly unable to be in the same room together, let alone tour the summer festival circuit. Daniels has his own distinct idea of how music should, or could sound, much more so than most musicians who draw the ill-defined “dream-pop” label. His songs flirt with the shoegazer’s impulse to pair noise and melody but more often use counterintuitive structural twists over blankets of pedal fuzz to broadcast their gentle shyness. Post-punk rhythms entered their mix, yet stayed weirdly distant within it. They occasionally seem to be under water, with New Wave blaring from a speaker down in the deep end, the whole affair seeking refuge from boom box beats at a backyard BBQ. Their sound so far has been as gloriously difficult to describe as the previous sentence suggests.
Sea When Absent is their fourth record and their first in four years. It was partially funded by Kickstarter, and it was produced by Jeff Zeigler, who worked on the most recent The War on Drugs LP. It’s a bold pop move for a band that’s so far built its identity on avoiding anything that could be described as such. Their sound now centers around singer Jen Goma, heard elsewhere this year as a new member in Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Her singing has an R&B influenced proficiency that’s more versatile than the mysterious coos, courtesy of Daniels’s sisters, used in earlier songs. “In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing)” comes on stronger than the band ever has; it doesn’t just suggest the sweep of a big melody by presenting a ghost version of one, but it finds different ways to confuse the ear instead. Goma’s voice clips with digital distortion at its strongest point, like a built-in self-destruct mechanism keeping if from becoming too direct. “Crushin’ ” sounds atypically sweet and relaxed, until a surprise guitar breakdown turns its back end chaotic. Unexpected flourishes remain their songs’ best feature. The material is uniformly strong, less apt to veer into ambient digression than in the past. You can make out the details better. Crucially though, the upped slickness doesn’t turn them bland. Daniels still has a peculiar ability to make it seem like your high-end headphones are deeply fucked up. In the rock landscape that blogs utterly failed to save, that kind of uniqueness is still desperately needed.