Underneath the Lowlights: Strange Ranger Creates Low-key Sublimity
Portland's Strange Ranger is having a blast on Daymoon, and they want you to join them.
The 90's were notorious in part for the way that they ushered in an era of apathy and pessimism under the guise of "cool". Some truly great music was born out of this grey-sky gloom, to be sure, but it really did get heavy sometimes. The success of grunge gave an excuse for the mainstream to give in to its nastiest impulses, and they did that by showering "Alternative" bands with record deals until it felt like 7 out of every 10 rock bands featured combat boot- and metal choker-clad singers lip-syncing in their videos.
Counteracting all these angsty vibes, a new set of artists from the western states, especially the Pacific Northwest, sought to save rock-n-roll from what it had become. It's not like they were printing mission statements and wearing sandwich boards at Pike and Pine, but they brought a sense of fun and inquisitiveness back into the genre that was largely lacking in the middle to latter part of the decade. These bands signed to labels like Up and K, and they had names that sounded funny at first but would be iconic within 10 years: Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, 764-HERO, Duster, etc.
Enter Daymoon. In much the same way that The Microphones and their ilk channeled something completely different than what their contemporaries were doing at the time, Strange Ranger pulls liberally from the vaults of PNW 90's indie in a way that feels refreshing when compared to the pervasive trend of bands today who mine sounds and aesthetics from further right on the dial (Nirvana, L7, Smashing Pumpkins, Letters to Cleo, etc). The band themselves basically confirm this in "House Show": "Maybe I'm not like your friends / sobbing in a closet…" The record ends up capturing a looseness that is endearing while the ideas and playing are more than capable of holding attention on their own, resulting in a work that is supremely accomplished and sublimely comforting in equal measure.
From the opening track "Glow", it is clear that SR is highly concerned with song construction but not out to reinvent the wheel. Using a pump organ that sounds almost audibly caked with dust and then building on it with more standard instrumentation, they eventually concoct a moody five minutes that contains some of the most beautiful harmonies to be found in music this year. This is the stuff that laying on your bed with headphones on was made for. This vibe continues through the first third of the album which showcases some straightforward guitar rock ("House Show"), the album's most prominent bass work ("Warm"), and the lovely punch-counterpunch of "Subaru"/"Everything Else" where the same basic premise is played two startlingly different ways and each works brilliantly - have fun getting the lyrics to "Subaru" out of your head.
Elsewhere on the LP, Strange Ranger exhibits a real talent for changing things up by downshifting into a decidedly ominous-sounding melody and progression on the single "Hydration is Key". A few examples of straight-ahead rock shine through the haze: "Everything all at Once" is a beacon of rambunctious lead guitar and drums driving forward like Slanted-era Pavement, and "The Future" finds SR broadcasting their innermost Isaac Brock spirit-animal with hammer-on's and harmonics. Not to be outdone, "Most Perfect Gold of the Century" gives Neil Young a run for his money and is not ashamed to lean into its Classic Rock roots with a country-fried guitar freakout coda.
Structurally, the album benefits from some half-length song experiments and candid recording takes - such as "Doggies", where a guitar/piano melody is recorded at roughly medium-fidelity and dogs are heard barking in the background. In another setting a non-sequitur like this could be trite or off-putting, but here it is played as evidence of the process: the band's primary members Isaac Eiger and Fred Nixon getting an idea and rushing to put it on tape in Gerry's room* (*actual liner note info), working to flesh things out in the moment with no thought to what else the tape might be picking up. The magic of the tapestry in this case is that the seams are so obvious you forget they're there - the whole becomes even more alluring because of the visible connection points.
The first thing that occurred to me while listening to Daymoon was how lived-in it feels as an album, and it is still what strikes me with each new run-through. Achieving that overall tone at this level is a rare feat that takes everything working together - sequencing, song length, band chemistry, production, etc. But here, amidst all the shorter song sketches and interludes, amidst all the goofy pre-song chatter and ambient noises, amidst the subtle mood swings handled deftly through the course of the record, Strange Ranger have crafted something that is eloquently personal, deeply satisfying, and inviting to the audience in a way that a lot of music simply isn't in 2017, and they have done it by paradoxically taking great care to make an album that superficially sounds a little bit ramshackle. Like their PNW indie-rock forebears, Strange Ranger aren't putting their work behind glass in some dusty museum, they're inviting all to join them: c'mon, have a beer, jam with us...or just chill.