When North Carolina duo The Rosebuds added disco beats and synthesizers to their surf-inspired, moody rock repertoire on 2007’s Night of the Furies, it seemed like a risky move for the group to make. Given that Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard had previously played music so strongly mired in the tradition of Roy Orbison, The Gun Club and The Pixies, making that dark pop blend into dance music was hardly the course of action one could expect from such a stellar Americana outfit. And yet, it worked. In fact, it worked remarkably well. Not only did they retain all of the haunted atmosphere of their previous work, but they also managed to shine a bit of light on other aspects of their musical personality. Still, the American Gothic sound of Birds Make Good Neighbors was nonetheless their artistic peak, so to hear Crisp and Howard return to that approach on new album Life Like is a welcome transition.
Life Like captures the very essence of what makes The Rosebuds unique. That the band is able to drift between beat heavy dance music and acoustic ballads with such ease speaks to their versatility and identity as a band. Yet somehow, you can hear either type of song transforming easily into the other. The leadoff title track, a haunting first person account of being hunted, isn’t hard to imagine as a darkly sensual track from their prior album. Yet, here, it’s more straightforward, with a trap set instead of a drum machine, and sounds perfectly natural. And that straightforwardness is often where the band most frequently achieves their peaks. The brief “Cape Fear” rocks steadily, with a chilling hook. Then “Border Guards” arrives with a paradoxical mix of fast-paced beats and atmospheric melodies. “Bow to the Middle” has a hand-clap heavy boogie style that still carries with it the kind of sweet sadness that The Rosebuds have perfected time and again, while “Concordian Music Club,” heavy in effects and mood, casts a shivering shadow, like Echo & The Bunnymen or Teardrop Explodes, rather than the band’s American influences.
In every Rosebuds song, the elements that make up the music are means to an end rather than ends in themselves. Whether an acoustic ballad free of percussion, a mighty rocker, or a fun bit of dance music, The Rosebuds somehow manage to make each permutation unmistakably Rosebuds. With each of these aspects of the band’s personality on display (sans drum machines), Life Like is a strong summation of the group’s work to date, and a fine addition to an already impressive catalog.