Two years ago I was at the Apple store on Michigan Ave, the flagship store here in Chicago. This event alone is not all that rare-you can often find me and Kari walking around looking at the marvels that Apple creates. On this day, though, we were there for something I didn’t even realize could take place in such a venue. We were there to watch California Wives play a live 40-minute set of music promoting their new EP Affair. Due to the restrictions of the store, they were not allowed to bring in drums. Having heard the release already, I knew that their music was driven by the percussion. They did a fantastic job covering and switching arrangements to make it work. I knew then that they were destined for good things.
At the end of 2010 when I was putting my top ten lists together, I slotted their EP at number 9 in the Chicago category. In my blurb about the record I had this to say: “…I think it’s safe to say that when they put out a full-length, it will be worth the wait.” Well, last week Art History was released and I’m very happy to announce that that prediction was spot on. You may have seen the video for “Purple” they did for Sharpie on the VMA’s last week on MTV, or maybe you heard “Blood Red Youth” in an episode of that network’s Real World. If not, you need to hear them now.
A few of the songs on Art History are reworked versions of tunes that appeared on Affair. As a general rule, I hate this sort of thing. But here, using slightly different arrangement and fancier production, it does breathe some new life into these songs that were already quite good. Their biggest hit prior to the release of this album, I think, is “Blood Red Youth.” The new version cuts off some of the opening and makes it a more guitar-driven piece. Jayson Kramer’s voice feels much more confident and clear. The hook is bigger and much more bold. An improvement, for sure.
All of the new material is pretty strong, but I do have my favorites. I love the subtle lead guitar work on “Marianne” by Graham Masell. I also love that on almost all the new songs the lyrics read like they could have been written by Stuart Murdoch. On “The Fisher King,” which may be as close to a Beach House song as you can get without them becoming litigious, the lyrics are delivered in Kramer’s haunting voice, just above a whisper:
Hope, fears, all those years before me
The will in your eyes feel paradise
I never had that dream inform me
The women the same, we’re different names
But it feels like, feels like you
And it feels like, feels like you
All the people, all your, all of your lies
And it feels like, feels like you
For all the advances the band has made, my favorite song is still “Twenty Three.” It’s drenched in synths that give Passion Pit or Hot Chip a run for their money. I feel that musically and lyrically, this song captures California Wives better than any other. Everything the band does best comes out here: Joe O’Connor on percussion really gets to shine, and Dan Zima’s bass work is top notch. Of course none of that is possible without Kramer’s vocals and keyboard work. It’s a somewhat dark song about growing up and making the most of your last days as a kid.
Have a drink, kid
Say your good-byes
Keep it tucked in
For the last time
You have your kicks
Take it all in
Before it misses
The final highlight, for me, is the song “New Process.” I’m hoping that this is the direction the band takes going forward into their next album. They incorporate all the cornerstones of their sound, but it’s completely different. A little more influenced by stuff like Pink Floyd and ELO than anything else you’ll find here. It’s also ready built for instant radio play. This is the kind of song Pains Of Being Pure At Heart tried so desperately to make on their second record and failed miserably.
Art History is a great full-length debut by a Chicago band that I had nothing but confidence in after hearing their 4-song EP. It’s no wonder they landed an opening spot on Stars tour of North American along with Diamond Rings. If you like synth-pop music with a little more guitar, this is gonna be right up your alley. I knew it was going to be good, but I’m a little blown away by it. Couldn’t be happier to have another great record to throw on and that it happened for such a great group of people.
You can pick up Art History on iTunes or Amazon right now! If you live in Chicago, California Wives are celebrating their record release this Wednesday, September 12th, at the amazing Lincoln Hall! If you don’t live in Chicago, but want to catch the band, check out Stars tour schedule to see when they’ll be in your city-that’s a guaranteed great night of music!