Art History is an excellent title for an album. I saw the title and immediately got excited: something about it implies an academic seriousness, one that can either be enhanced or ironically mocked by the music it represents. I pictured orchestral flair and nerdy verses, songs that strove to be interesting. But California Wives’ music has nothing to do with the title Art History. “Art History” is a placeholder. It’s an interesting name for largely uninteresting music.
The songs are guitar-based, with shimmers of synth in all the right places. The drums are hushed; they don’t propel the beat so much as they swish around in the background. Many artists are making music with this gentle and shimmery guitar/synth DNA—everyone from Au Revoir Simone to Purity Ring—and in a crowded field, the band has no tricks up its sleeve to differentiate their sound. Slow jams like “Photolights“ and “Tokyo“, sticky with the atmospherics of sentimental sap, belong on a high school prom playlist. You can almost hear the half-deflated Mylar balloons dragging across the dance floor.
Faster tracks fare better. Art History improves in its second half when the drums kick in and the band starts sounding more like a riled-up millenial emo band than a synth-pop band that didn’t get enough sleep last night. “Purple” has a nice blast of percussion and adorable teenagers-in-love lyrics: “If I keep looking at you, will you cut me in two?” “Twenty Three” is a peppy love song about what happens when your date wears fancy shoes. The mood is adolescent and romantic. But no single element on this album, neither the saccharine instances of glockenspiel nor the cooed ‘ooohs’ filling the space between verses, can elevate the underlying tepidness of Art History‘s instrumentation.
Which leaves the lyrics. Jayson Kramer delivers his vocals in a boyish whisper, and most of the choruses are one line repeated three or four times. “They’re building houses and lights in Tokyo,” he sings on “Tokyo.” “Marianne/Your girls are sleeping in,” he sings on “Marianne.” “It feels like/Feels like you” on “The Fisher King.” You’d think that repeating a particular word or line would demarcate its significance, but when Kramer repeats lyrics, he renders the words meaningless. “It feels like/Feels like you”—what, exactly, feels like you? Who is “you,” anyway?
Like the album's title, words like ‘it’ and ‘feels’ and ‘you’ become placeholders, too; subjects of songs appear as hazy as the synths framing them. It took me three listens to understand that the subject of “Blood Red Youth” could be just about anyone: a manipulative ex-girlfriend, a shifty friend, or some sort of Nixon-like political figure. The most interesting lyric on the album, the one that evokes the best story, is the question on the chorus of “Los Angeles”: “When you wake up on your own/Don’t you know that you were wrong?” That’s a fascinatingly passive-aggressive jab, the kind of zinger that builds a tense relationship between the “wrong” one and the “right” one in its wake, and lets the listener imagine an entire narrative based on that repeated, insistent “Don’t you know that you were wrong?” I heard this line and was thrilled the band had offered up a real story with such economy of language. But in the end, that real story is just a fascinating fluke.
California Wives’ music is soft and pleasant and fully formed and vague. Their lyrics are ciphers. On an album, a band can (maybe) get away with a few mushy tunes, or a handful of lyrics that aren’t meant to be taken seriously, but never both. I am greedy; I want Art History to be full of those story-starting zingers like the one on “Los Angeles.” Maybe next time.