For some bands, maturity is proportional to mass—in other words, sophistication comes from adorning your songs with string arrangements and complex chord patterns and busy production techniques. For other bands, maturity means stripping things back—chopping away unnecessary frills to arrive at a song’s resonant core. San Francisco quintet Social Studies fall in the latter camp with Developer, their structurally trim and sonically dazzling sophomore LP.
The first thing you’ll notice about the album is its clear sense of space: Where so many indie-pop bands get lost in studio effects like reverb and echo, Social Studies are always judicial about these tools, putting the raw instrumentation up-close-and-personal in the mix—and the arrangements themselves are so focused and concise, they’re often physically jarring. The best example is sexy lead single “Terracur,” which opens with simple, soulful vocal harmonies, a spooky organ pulse and a sparse drum pattern so bone-dry, it feels like you’re listening from inside the bass drum.
Yes, Developer excels partially because of its fabulous engineering (hat-tip to the marvelous Eli Crews); this is some of the most warmly recorded indie-related music to saunter along in ages. But the songwriting itself is equally vibrant: It’s easy to lose sight of Natalia Rogovin’s dreamy vocal melody in opener “Delicate Hands,” amidst the spiraling guitar lines and sparkling keys; “Away for the Weekend,” with its atmospheric chorus and snaking synth lines, calls to mind a funkier Beach House, minus the devotion to reverb.
On a string of sleepy-eyed ballads (“You Still Laughing,” “Sans”), the Beach House similarities become a distraction, with Rogovin bellowing over misty organs that ring a bit too Teen Dream-y. But even when Social Studies sound derivative, they’re derivative in the pursuit of quality tunes. On the whole, Developer proves to be a more than accurate title.