Album Review

The Dead Trees "WHATWAVE"

Brian Ahnmark
Writer's note: This review was written in the winter, when the status of this record was uncertain. While some of the piece is a little dated, I have left it largely unedited – with the addition of the happy ending.

A few years back, I attended a concert hosted by a tiny art studio in a dicey Phoenix neighborhood. I arrived early to hob-knob with the headlining act and ultimately received an invitation to join the band for a Thai dinner. I sat with the members of the opening act, The Dead Trees, who hailed from Portland. One memory stands out: Dead Trees drummer Noah Rubin bemoaning that he would have to temporarily abandon the band in coming days to drive an insane distance back to Portland so that he could work the minimum number of hours required to keep his day job at a gelato shop.

The moral of the story? Life in a touring band is not necessarily glamorous.

That was back in 2007, before The Dead Trees had recorded their scrappy debut album, King of Rosa. That record quietly slipped out under the radar in 2008, loaded with spunky melodic nuggets. The band later moved from Portland to Los Angeles and began writing material for a sophomore record. One minor issue: They didn't have the money to make it.

Enter the fans to the rescue!

The Dead Trees enlisted the aid of Kickstarter, a fundraising site, and collected an astonishing $17,000+ from supporters. The second album is now complete, and early downloads have been delivered as promised to the donors. The title of the album is (tentatively) WHATWAVE... or What Wave, depending on the source. Here's a sneak peek...

King of Rosa was a concise, spunky debut. But it was positively bloated compared to WHATWAVE, which cruises through 12 songs in a brisk 29 minutes. There is not an ounce of fat to be found, but make no mistake – there is meat aplenty.

As a whole, the record unfolds like a soundtrack to a balmy Los Angeles morning. Opener “Slow Faze” stretches sleepily around a yawning acoustic strum; “Slow Faze Fast” is that cherished first cup of coffee, Noah's frantic snare fills trading blows with a tangle of barbed wire guitars.

The brevity of the songs only accentuates the strength of the songwriting. “My Time Has Just Begun” coasts on a thick groove through a pair of verses, a handclap 'n' gospel falsetto breakdown, an addictive chorus, a slinky guitar solo, bridge buildup and finale – all in under 2:30. “Arrows” bursts from a relaxed shuffle into a pounding refrain, steered by Noah's propulsive flourishes. Percussionists, take note: This is how to use rhythms to carry the melody, rather than drown it.

Two quiet numbers allow chief songwriter Michael Ian Cummings to show off a deft, beautifully bruised lyrical touch. “Comfortable Kids” opens with the lines, “Who are all these comfortable kids? Why do they get all the attention? Are they well-off, or just well-bred?” It feels like a starving artist's lament, broke and away from home while assholes talk through your set (or perhaps a jab at pretty boys like Vampire Weekend). But don't cry for The Dead Trees: “Play the cards, they're in your hand / It's not your fault, it's just the way it is – such is life,” Cummings sings with confident nonchalance.

“Punch For Punch” is a sad ode to a bygone childhood neighborhood, swallowed by progress. “Down my street, there was a barber / Now there's just one more Super Cuts.” But the protagonist, like the band, has moved on to greener pastures: “The neighborhood has got some new name now / They have a party once a year / I guess I'm not invited / Thank God I don't still live 'round here.”

WHATWAVE has no official release date. But the adoration of fans helped sponsor its creation, and who knows – perhaps word of mouth will spur its eventual release and distribution. Consider this piece one fan humbly doing his part. (Happy ending: The album will be released on July 15, 2011.)