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Music Review: Rogue Wave – Asleep at Heaven’s Gate

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Oakland's Rogue Wave appeared on the scene in 2004 with Out of the Shadows, an album of infectiously sweet pop musings and pastoral acoustic folksiness. They followed up with the like-minded Descended Like Vultures in 2005. After these two first strong showings on Sub Pop, they return with Asleep at Heaven's Gate on Brushfire Records, owned by surf folkster Jack Johnson.

Juxtaposing pop music with dark lyrics is not a new trend. It is, however, an art — and a subtle art at that — cultivated and crafted in some of the most surprising ways by the least obvious bands. It is the prevalence and success of dark pop bands in the indie pop genre (I hate calling it a genre, but it now is, isn't it?) that makes indie pop an arguably more satisfying listen than the traditional, bubble-gum-oriented major label pop. The themes explored in indie pop in general are not solely relegated to love, relationships, etc., as they typically are in radio-friendly pop. And so it is easy for sub-genres to emerge within indie pop that explore a diverse range of styles and topics. Hence, dark pop. And hence, bands like Rogue Wave.

Unfortunately, indie pop bands tend to ripen on the vine, and perhaps as a result, their best work is often found in the frustrations of their early emergence and is sometimes later lost as a result of success. The music evolves with the audience. Consequently many pop bands, indie and mainstream alike, find themselves kowtowing to traditional pop conventions, which places them in the dreaded void of pseudo-adult contemporary pop. It is a natural evolution, but one that is not conducive to hailing reviews by critics in combination with the credibility normally extended to a new and exciting sound. However, what a band surrenders in growth, they exchange for a semi-loyal following of a decent and sometimes growing size. Hopefully this leads to financial benefits and more.

Rogue Wave is in the unenviable position in their history to succumb to this pressure to ‘mature’ or at the very least to mimic growing trends in music. Well, Rogue Wave doesn't have much room to mature, as their first two albums revealed them to be a band with a cohesive and competent sound that is as accessible as it is challenging. Fortunately for fans of Rogue Wave, the band has ignored the flawed wisdom in trying to incorporate trends and has instead wisely chosen to build upon their already solid sound as a unit. Thusly, Asleep at Heaven's Gate firmly establishes Rogue Wave's identity as a band and continues their already strong musical narrative.

Produced by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater Kinney, Elvis Costello), Asleep at Heaven's Gate is such a consistent album that a listener may have trouble picking out their favorite song. Beginning with the piano-driven "Harmonium," Heaven's Gate unfolds melodies and choruses that will etch themselves onto your brain; fortunately not in the commercial-jingle-kind-of-way. Repeated listens will inspire much swaying and singing along.

All of the familiar Rogue Wave elements are here in Asleep at Heaven's Gate: the somber acoustic introspection of "Christians in Black" and "Missed" for example. But Rogue Wave also manages to cram variety galore into this album. Subtle flourishes like samples and studio effects on "Like I Needed," steel drums in "Chicago X 12," and chimes on "Lullaby" add just the right touch without making the production seem meddlesome.

There is a lot of emotion within Asleep at Heaven's Gate, as evidenced by the surprising but short jam at the end of the combustive "Phonytown." The album culminates with its most emotionally charged track, "Cheaper Than Therapy." Beginning with a slow, dirge-like, organ-driven passage, the song quickly evolves into a somber piano-driven gem – a fitting end to an altogether impressive album.

From track to track, the uncompromising Asleep at Heaven's Gate is like a pleasant Sunday afternoon – cautiously optimistic, but not without moments of sunny inspiration. This album certainly puts Rogue Wave's importance to indie pop in perspective and makes the case for Rogue Wave's potential as a band with longevity. I highly recommend it.

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