Over the years, Sargent House has been providing you with a steady stream of really performative, jarring and technical acts like Tera Melos and TTNG. As a management company, they were the ones who broke the obscure, meme worthy and difficult to define Deafheaven back in 2011, and as a record label, in 2012 released a remastered version of their first demo on vinyl. Even less blatantly virtuosic releases like Chelsea Wolfe’s 2015 album Abyss are sensibly dense, grim and wandering. Still, one thing you can argue about their roster ( this is very much the case with the last two Chelsea Wolfe releases) is that, even though they’ve made a home in the shadowy-est parts of our sonic palette, there’s an underlying interest in switching the sound up and experimenting with genres while staying under the umbrella of a relatively well-defined aesthetic. All of these things culminate and make the release of their most recent endeavor Daydream by Detroit trio Empty Houses the curveball that it is.
If you’re going into Daydream looking for the darkness, turn around right now; it’s nowhere to be found. Instead, what you get on this album is some extremely well-produced, nimble and occasionally brilliant retro pop. What the album lacks in diversity, it makes up for with sheer enthusiasm. The band approaches the old Motown ‘Motor City’ sound with a few fresh and compelling concepts, but seems to be so in love with the style that the idea of deviating from it too often is completely off the table. That’s no deal-breaker though; the band does the sound justice. The tight straightforward drumming and the bombastic horn lines on the chromatic opener “Daydream” or “Thunderstorms,” on the track listing next to ballads like “Lost At Sea” or “Every Word,” solidify the band’s ability to keep one foot in a sound that is clearly a throwback while keeping the other in one that can still sound modern. It bodes well, considering the group has a few things working against them already. Primarily that they harken back to a sound that isn’t just old, but isn’t currently the most popular genre of source material. It’s not Aaron Maine doing throwback synth new wave, Grimes or even Washed Out taking cues from artists like Enigma.
Too many bands just get lazy when it comes to crafting transitions and making the different parts of the song speak to each other in a seamless way. On a few occasions, the band flaunts their extremely tangible songwriting ability and deviates a little bit to pull through with some solid pop songs. The exceptional musicianship on the big standout “Mercy” just drives home a beautiful melody. The band harnesses a lot of passion and streamlines it into really driven and focused songs like the other big standout “Hold Your Hand”. These songs are so good that you almost wish the band had chosen to go in this direction with more of the album.
Empty Houses seems to be at their best when they’re not limited to a certain type of sound. The really ‘50s doo-woppy cuts sound good, but in the end don’t hit as hard, nor are they the most memorable. You won’t be asking for your time back, but you’ll definitely be wanting more of what the band is keeping in shorter supply on this album. Daydream is a lot of fun, and even though it does what it does really at a high level, it ultimately can’t distance itself from the source style and succumbs to playing the part too well.