This year has seen the return of Pavement, the poster children for that whole slacker-rock thing. But to me that label never quite seemed to fit Malkmus and the gang. Sure, they sounded laid-back and loose, even at their most rocking. But it all seemed so carefully conceived, so determined in its aloofness. That doesn't make them less great, by any stretch, just not quite as slack as they might first appear.
That slacker title belongs, instead, to the likes of the Radar Bros. For more than 15 years now, Jim Putnam and his fellow players have quietly been releasing consistently beautiful records. Their sound rests on Putnam's whispery lilt, on the sway of guitars, on simple, mid-tempo percussion. And the songs themselves are often the stuff of beers-on-the-porch philosophy. These guys sound like that particular brand of slacker, the kind that get a lot of thinking done just sitting around.
And The Illustrated Garden, though it features a wholly new backing band behind Putnam, does little to change the band's hazy trajectory. The Illustrated Garden is another solid set of dreamy guitar pop. And it has plenty of late-afternoon ruminations to offer. "So there you are out in the sun getting high," Putnam keens on opener "Dear Headlights." You have to wonder if he's talking to himself, or to his bandmates, as they drift through the track. But the trick the Radar Bros. pull off here -- and have for years -- is making the music sound stoned without sounding dull. With the opener, there's a subtle lift to the chorus, and a bracing melody to hold the song up.
In other places, swaying chords shift into tighter, classic-rock riffs. Even as the Brothers question their everyday efforts -- "why try so fucking hard?" they sing together -- during the excellent sing-along chorus to "Quarry," guitars cut hard riffs into the track, injecting it with a resilience, making sound like they really want to try, even as they wonder if it's worth it. And when the riffs aren't tightened, the vocal harmonies keep these songs from losing their energy. "Horse Warrior" beautifully channels a Beach Boys' high-register melody, while in "People" Putnam sings alone up front while the band circles him hauntingly in the background.
The whole album is full of these kinds of simple, muted pleasures. And while there may not be a lot of spectacle here, there are layers that peel away as you listen, revealing songs with surprising staying power.
The Illustrated Garden won't give you much in the way of change from Radar Bros. But these guys can sound like slackers because they hit upon a brilliant sound years ago, and they still haven't finished mining it for fresh songs. Sure, this record doesn't quite match their best work, on 2002's ...and the Surrounding Mountains, but it is just as strong as anything else in their discography -- a discography that might be too lost in thought to try to win you over. But if you stumble upon it, sit down and have a beer with Radar Bros. It'll be the most productive slacking you've done in a while.