A period of inexplicably silent years separates Brazos’s adored 2009 release Phosphorescent Blues and their new album Saltwater, out today on Dead Oceans. Not only years but also geographical distance separates the Brazos of old and new, since primary songwriter Martin Crane has relocated from Austin, TX to New York since the band’s last released material. Whatever the reason for the absence and relocation, they can only be seen as necessary steps to actualization, as Saltwater marks the most ambitious and accomplished Brazos songs to date. Impeccable pop permeates Saltwater, as Brazos delivers fearless and raw songwriting that thrives on a multitude of embellishments and flourishes.
Something like a more acoustic-pop oriented Lou Reed, Crane has learned to balance nonchalant coolness with immediate, emotive sincerity as he intones lyrics such as “Everything that’s green turns gold” over percussive explosions on album highlight “Charm.” Ghostly harmonics ring and echo before album single “How the Ranks Was Won” bursts into full force. Most of the tracks manage to both float by effortlessly and find entrancing grooves while also providing punchy acoustic strums or snares. Saltwater’s arrangements not only arc but also teem and burst life.
Background loops develop ambiance almost imperceptibly; this isn’t your average, easy pop—rich layers and complex arrangements develop rewarding recordings that constantly shift and unfold. The Shins will come to mind, but Crane’s pop is a breezier and sunnier affair that steers away from the melancholy of James Mercer’s tonality and moodiness. Many songs feature brief melodic hooks of subtle synths or busy guitar that ride under an overt musical motif. Title track “Saltwater” serves as a prime example of the band’s prowess at slowly working toward energetic, crescendo swells that mimic ocean waves. Simple guitar arpeggios and distant twinkling keys carry the record out on “Long Shot.”
Without question, Saltwater’s nine tracks are almost categorically catchy and accessible, but its power lies in careful nuances. Instead of brief pop nuggets, we have been graced with ornate and wondrous, multi-faceted gems. These songs aren’t so much one season as they are seasons in transition—that indefinable few days between summer and fall, winter and spring. Both refreshingly cool and cathartically biting—like saltwater. The album’s beauty rises and recedes like the tide, as brief flashes of brilliance appear and are gone just as quickly, replaced by a new shimmer of light on the surface of a briny ocean.