Slowly easing out of the garage and pulling into the studio, Chautauqua finds Michel Gondry’s favorite foursome, the Willowz, streamlining the eclectic pet soundscapes found on its previous disc (2005’s Talk in Circles) while continuing to blend its classic-rock influences into a modern indie aesthetic amid a forest of knotted, gnarled-root guitar lines and misty boy-girl vocals. The album is a cocktail of originality and homage (that’s polite listenerspeak for adept and loving rip-offs), with the budding but gifted musicians still discovering their sound by journeying through the echoes left by others — the thumping, acoustic back-porch stomp of “Jubilee,” for instance, Ouija-boards Beggar’s Banquet-era Stones into the twenty-first century; the hopeful resignation groove of “Lonesome Gods” echoes the best of the Band’s early slow burns; and the ambitious shape-shifter album centerpiece “Evil Son” recasts the song-suite of Abbey Road as a gargantuan Jimmy Page riff sprawl that blends raw kinetics with burgeoning studio mastery and control.
Also dotting the landscape, unfortunately, is an EP’s worth of generic garage bashers that would sound more at home on an early White Stripes demos collection than on Chatauqua. Further, the increase in knob-turning and studio effects forces these weaker songs to buckle and crumble together, blowing their smog and ash into the other, better tunes — distracting from the laidback guitar-pop swagger of “All I Need” and the sing-song nursery melody of “Yesterday’s Lost.” Though not enough to topple the entire album, the inclusion of these vestigial tracks weakens the disc, preventing it from fully capitalizing on the evolutionary potential of Talk in Circles. Chautauqua, then, is not quite the great leap forward of a homo superior, but it’s still far from the scrape-knuckle ruckus of modern rock neanderthalensis. Simply human, which is still more than most acts can claim.