Descended Like Comfort Food: Rogue Wave's Overlooked Second Album
Some records are comfort food. Regardless of how good they are in any agreed-upon or empirical way, they can make listeners feel embraced, understood, warm-and-fuzzy, and just a little bit more complete. When deployed at just the right time, that increase in what we'll call the "completeness index" can turn a bad day into a decent one or a good day into a lovely one. I routinely turn to these albums when I need to decompress, or if the stress of the day has become a little too much and I need to take the edge off of it. Albums like Paul Simon's Greatest Hits, etc., Nirvana's Unplugged in New York, and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush serve to put me in a more relaxed frame of mind by giving me exactly what I need. Like the best mashed potatoes or mac-and-cheese, I know what to expect each time I spin them and I know they'll never let me down.
On a recent #throwbackthursday (Note to readers of the future: #tbt was an Instagram thing we used to do in the 2010's, by now your ability to time travel has made such things silly and useless - you can just ignore the reference here.), I went digging in the stacks to find something from the past that I could spin and get nostalgic with. The album I settled on was Descended Like Vultures by Rogue Wave, and as I listened I began to feel the familiar warmth in my chest and the sensation of my mind slowing down enough to appreciate it in a new way. Just when I thought my comfort food selections were pretty solid and unchanging, I rediscovered this as an album that hits all the same notes and leads to all the same feels.
But let's face it, the only thing it would even have going against it on paper would be the fact that it is not more than 15 years old (this writing is being published on the day after its 12th anniversary, if you're keeping score). To truly get that worn-out-old-shoe feeling of intense "right-place-right-time"-ness, there should be a significant period that would allow for several major life changes that the album can go through with you - in my opinion that time frame is in the range of 15 years. Your mileage may vary on that concept, and that's fine. Even a few years shy of that mark, Descended's relative youth among my other comfort-food picks is really the only thing that makes it an outlier. Everything else is there.
The mastermind behind Rogue Wave's first album, Out of the Shadow, Zach Rogue (née Schwartz) had recruited like-minded players and made the follow up LP a true band effort. While there are some essentially solo acoustic asides that serve as cohesive tie-backs to Shadow, like album-closer "Temporary", the majority of the record is comprised of rollicking, breezy indie rock that interlaces tightly to make for a satisfyingly engaging listen. Perhaps one of the best examples comes in one of the record's standout tracks, "Are You On My Side": a simple guitar line is joined by a juicy kick-snare combination, the hushed versus bleed into a commiserating and wounded chorus refrain of the titular question, the bridge brings in group vocal harmonies, bass and synths get more prominent creating an ebb-and-flow effect that calls to mind the wave in the band's name, the riffs continue to carry the song through to the end with layers alternately coming in and going away - the result is a highly meditative but uncomplicated song that could easily be 4 minutes longer than it is without getting old.
But for an album to truly be comfort-food level, it needs to have some serious relatability - it needs to have some anthems, some classic jams. Descended does not disappoint on this score. I will never understand why this band never seems to be in the conversation for some of the best songwriting of the early 2000's and beyond. "Publish My Love", "10:1", "Love's Lost Guarantee", and the previously mentioned "Are You On My Side" all deliver crafty lyrical nuance, singable hooks, and musical flourishes worthy of pushing the volume on your stereo past any point of reasonability.
In a lot of ways, Rogue Wave made the quintessential West Coast indie record of the 2000's with Descended Like Vultures - they eschewed the difficulty of Modest Mouse, the precocious pop theatricality of labelmates The Shins, the cloying need-to-please of The New Pornographers. RW was finding their musical footing somewhere on a picturesque beach that was occasionally drenched in Pacific rain, as likely to vibe with surfer bros as they were to spend the wee hours holed up in a coffee shop with a poetry book.
It stands to reason then that an LP so sure of its place both spiritually and geographically would wind up hitting the perfect comfort-food sweet spot. As Zach put it in an interview with The Big Takeover last year, "Writing songs…is a way of processing my life in a way that's not self-destructive". In the case of Descended Like Vultures, it turns out that the same can be said of the act of listening. Let it wash over you, and you can find that same sparkle of rainshine…maybe you too can add to your list of comfort-food listening.