A wise man may have once said, “Our lives are nothing more than a series of reactions.” Everything we do is a response to something that has come before; we’re never satisfied, always pushing and searching for something more to inspire us or take us some place new. It’s a concept that often pops up in popular music—and the new project from Zach Rogue, songwriter/brains behind the underrated indie-pop outfit Rogue Wave, is a perfect example.
Let’s go way back—after 2007’s epic breakthrough Asleep at Heaven’s Gate, a lot of heavy shit happened. Former bassist Evan Farrell died from smoke inhalation; drummer/producer Pat Spurgeon’s kidney troubles grew deathly serious, and Rogue himself suffered a debilitating neck injury that left him sidelined in the hospital. Desperate for both positivity and physical movement, Rogue and Spurgeon recorded Permalight, a danceable—and heavily disappointing—2010 full-length that smoothed over their quirky pop with programmed rhythms and synths but came across as forced and clumsy.
Rogue didn’t waste much time sussing out his next sea change. After the final Permalight tour came to a close, Rogue hopped off a plane with a sense of urgency. Armed with a handful of capital-R “rough” demos, he tracked down some old musician buddies (including vocalist Kate Long) and headed off to throw down some tracks. This time, the feel was to be loose—full-band takes, flubs included, quick and dirty, mainly acoustic. Partly inspired by an old Guided by Voices track, he named the project Release the Sunbird, and the music that sprouted from his ramshackle sessions is a perfect accompaniment to that delicate image.
At this point, Rogue’s carved himself a signature style—simple chord strums, hazy harmonies, mountain-sized emotions built from modest, sticky hooks. With that in mind, this is a Rogue album, though and through—regardless of production style or artistic intent, these would have made excellent Rogue Wave songs. “It’s All Around You” blares through on fairly familiar territory—a ramshackle two-chord strum, big drumbeat and an arena-ready singalong chorus that wouldn’t feel out of place on Heaven’s Gate. But the rest is more relaxed and spacious: Rogue, harmonizing effortlessly with Long on the folky title track, has never sounded more comfortable in his own skin. “Always Like the Son,” meanwhile, is one of the 2011’s most gorgeous songs, built on nothing but delay-drizzled acoustic fingerpicking and Rogue’s delicate near-whisper.
Come Back to Us isn’t Rogue’s greatest work—both Heaven’s Gate and Descended Like Vultures feel sturdier in terms of the long haul. But it’s a huge step forward from the lukewarm attempt at populist coolness that is Permalight. Come Back to Us is, thank God, a songwriter’s album, emphasizing everything Rogue does well—and still arriving at destinations no one would have expected.