Rogue Wave – Permalight: Laid-Back Indie Rock

permalight11Making music is like baking a cake. Okay, not really, but bear with the analogy – I’m hungry. Like a cake, music is made up of countless ingredients that combine to create something greater than the sum of the parts. You wouldn’t eat raw flour on its own, just like you might not want to listen to Bob Dylan sing a capella. But with the proper complements, the finished good can be quite enjoyable in either case (preferably with lots of icing for the former and ample harmonica for the latter). More than just the ingredients influence the outcome though – the process has an effect as well. And this, perhaps, is what makes the music of Rogue Wave unique.

Rather than following the traditional path of the free-spirited boy who moves out to California in hopes of finding musical stardom, Rogue Wave’s Zach Schwartz (a.k.a. Zach Rogue) did the reverse – moving from the entertainment hotbed of California to New York after losing his job. While Schwartz intended to vent musically by recording one or two songs with a friend, he ended up with an entire album’s worth of material: Rogue Wave’s 2003 debut, Out of The Shadow.

Now, the band that almost never was is poised to release its fourth full-length, Permalight. Though the band has been established for a while now, the record still bears indications of Rogue Wave’s somewhat unorthodox beginnings – it has a distinct flair that sets it apart and makes it hard to set down.

The album begins with “Solitary Gun,” an upbeat tune with plenty of simple snare and acoustic strumming. The simplicity gives this a somewhat intimate feel, and it’s not hard to picture Schwartz performing this at the local open mic. But that doesn’t mean it’s amateur in any way – this is a very catchy, well-written pop-folk fusion with some tasteful soloing toward the tail end.

“Good Morning (The Future)” has a bit more of an electronic vibe, with slightly distorted distorted guitars and some synthesizers throughout. Schwartz’s musings on the future don’t seem too hopeful, as he notes, “The future isn’t what it used to be, I’m not surprised – most of us live on boats of luxury, so confined.” It’s hard to tell, though, because the overall tone of the song is upbeat and begs for hand-clapping and foot-tapping. Whether intentional or not, this bouncy song feels like it could be destined to hit the airwaves as a single.

The following track, “Sleepwalker,” brings things back from the world of electronica with some more acoustic strumming and Schwartz’s soothing vocals. As he sings, Schwartz adds a lot of flair onto the notes, which can be very easily overdone but sound great here. The notes seem to flow effortlessly out of Schwartz’s guitar and throat, and the song sounds as if you’ve been listening to it your whole life. It’s not that it’s tired, but rather comfortable – like Rogue Wave knew exactly what you wanted out of a light, acoustic rock song.

“Stars and Stripes” opens with a meandering bass line that is suddenly joined by driving guitars and drums. This has a little harder edge than that of “Sleepwalker,” but it is another poppy, radio-friendly light rocker. The song enters into a guitar break just past the two-minute mark, offering a little contrast from the shout-along choruses and bouncing verses. It’s a short track but undoubtedly a good one.

The next track, “Permalight,” offers some defiant strums on guitar as Schwartz chants, “It’s wrong, it’s wrong…to turn yourself off tonight.” This is another song that will doubtlessly persuade lots of listeners out of their seats and onto their feet. Scwhartz’s apprehensions about the future seem to have been moved to the back burner here, as he sings joyfully, “Reborn, from after death we are reborn.” This upbeat, future favorite builds momentum and rises to a great finish.

“Fear Itself” finds Schwartz adopting a falsetto to accompany his steady strumming and light bass and percussion. The emotion in his voice is palpable as he issues the plea, “Don’t go without me.” And when he asks, “Can’t you feel the fear itself,” it’s hard to deny it, as his fragile voice sounds so hollow and haunting. The band makes some interesting instrumental gambles that all pay off on this track, pairing electronic swoops of sound with bare electric guitar and Schwartz’s unadulterated vocals. In the closing seconds, Schwartz sings about fading away, but judging by how good this song is, that doesn’t seem likely.
The next song, “Right with You,” offers a simple, muted guitar riff that shadows Schwartz’s voice up and down the melody. As the track develops, more instruments join in and the momentum builds. At no point does the track sound too busy, though; Rogue Wave is very adept at finding the line and not crossing it. The second half of the track has a swingy, Weezer-esque feel to it, but it doesn’t seem as though the band is extending itself too far.

“We Will Make a Song Destroy” alternates between airy sections dominated by Schwartz’s echoed vocals and more aggressive, fuzz-laden guitar sections, and the juxtaposition works well. This track moves through several distinct feels, but everything feels right. It’s a unique track that appears to branch out in a lot of directions but finds its way home just fine.

“I’ll Never Leave You” has a more folksy, country feel, and Schwartz waxes philosophical early on, singing, “Your pain is my pain, we’ll go out of this just the same; we’re better when our paths combine.” This song is less poppy and bouncy than other cuts on the album, but that doesn’t make it any less listenable. Schwartz seems to be cementing his place as a great singer-songwriter on this track, as it is very accessible and catchy while still feeling authentic.

The album’s second last track, “Per Anger” sounds a bit angry at the outset, with some crashing cymbals and heavy strumming on fuzzy guitars. It doesn’t sound harsh or unpleasant, even when Schwartz is taunting, “You gonna walk out? Oh not again. Man, you’re like a virgin who can’t begin.” Though only 2:37 in duration, this song seems to expand and lingers – in an entirely good way; Rogue Wave manages to pack a lot of listenable music in a short time span.

Permalight closes with “You Have Boarded,” which is another upbeat, bouncing track which seems to liken marriage to an alien encounter, with the haunting words “Now that we got you in the family…You have boarded.” There’s plenty to enjoy on this one, with a brief, twangy solo in the middle of the track and a rocking finish. This stands apart from the sound on most of the rest of the album but is a solid song and a great finish.

Rogue Wave may sound a lot like your typical lo-fi indie rock band, but there’s one minor exception – they’re better. The band has a knack for making sounds work well together and has a gift for songwriting. The tracks on Permalight sound tight and rehearsed but also seem to flow freely and comfortably. Surely, Rogue Wave could have done a lot of things differently in this recipe, but it turned out just right.