2011’s Raven in The Grave was easily one of my favorites to date (and a top ten album on my 2011 playlist) for its dense, sometimes gothic and cold sound. Observator is the polar opposite. The band’s sound has been traditionally compared to the ‘noisy swells of the Jesus and Mary Chain with melodic elements of 50’s rock and roll‘ (AllMusic) However, Wagner and Foo maintain a keen sense of identity as a stand-alone act. Their savvy, sometimes uncanny knack for taking left turns that pay off consistently, is remarkable.
For the Raveonettes sixth album (and 10th anniversary), they convened at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles – home of such recordings as The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street, and The Doors self titled and Strange Days albums with longtime producer Richard Gottehrer. Sune Rose Wagner was influenced by simplistic musical patterns of The Doors. What came of these sessions is a deconstructed vision of anything that’s come before in the band’s cannon of work.
Album opener ‘Young and Cold,’ plays with familiar fuzzy abandon, but beneath the fuzz is an acoustic guitar and a simple piano interlude. What’s missing? Drums. Anyone who has been following the band is used to some sort of propulsive element driving the start of a record. It’s evident early that this is where the first left turn has been made. It ends with a forlorn piano, less any fuzz at all.
Second track and album namesake ‘Observations,’ opens with solo piano ans a guitar line that is reminiscent of a Rolling Stones tune I just can’t put my finger on. When the guitars and slight percussion are cut away a beautiful piano solo takes place. It’s as if the ghosts of rock legends past have invaded the studio and brain space as Wagner works out creative demons.
‘Curse the Night,’ follows with, of all things, a drum loop? And a cheesy one at that. An almost lullaby-like guitar line follows and Sharin Foo’s voice takes center stage. It’s one of those songs you’re unsure whether it works or not, but you don’t find yourself forwarding on to the next track.
‘The Enemy,’ has a very 70’s, almost Fleetwood Mac feel to it. It builds up a swell without ever reverting to any of the fuzz. Very simple and clean. ‘Sinking in the Sun,’ brings back the surfer-rock fuzz and most closely resembles the sounds of contemporaries, The Dandy Warhols. ‘She Owns the Streets,’ is another trip down brit-rock memory lane with a sort of waterfall like guitar refrain that recalls 90’s one-hit wonders the La’s ‘Where’d She Go?’
‘Downtown,’ is a pretty by-the-numbers track for the band – which is not to say this is a bad thing. Certain songs work as anchors to maintain a fan base and show that while the band continues to grow, they haven’t forgotten what got them here. ‘You Hit Me (I’m Down),’ typifies the back end of the album – the fuzz has returned, as has the melancholy. The album closes with ‘Till the End,’ starting with a whimper before ‘raving’ up in a cacophony of their signature sound, ending strongly.
The last three albums in the bands discography have continually had extreme high points and have challenged listeners and critics alike. To write them off as simply a novelty or hipster act, would be to do them a great injustice. I won’t even insult them by calling them ‘underrated,’ because those who pay attention know just how good this duo is. If they continue along this arc – the praise up to this point will be more than well deserved. For now, let’s just be happy they’re still creating music and gracing our ears with it.