A band with a short history that's been beset by bad luck, Oakland's Rogue Wave return after 2007's space-pop shot Asleep at Heaven's Gate and a serious injury to leader singer-songwriter Zach Rogue, who woke up one morning last year paralyzed thanks to slipped discs in his neck. His band had already suffered the death of former bass player Evan Farrell and been jettisoned from Sub Pop (which it shared with The Shins) to land on Jack Johnson's Brushfire label.
Permalight, Rogue Wave's first excursion on Brushfire, had all kinds of reasons to be a bleak little record. It's not. The tone, when not flat-out exuberant, is defiant. "Turn the light on tonight," Rogue sings in the title track, a tune so bouncy it could set a whole sweaty club hopping. There's a great sense of release and pleasure in Rogue's declaration, which is backed by a thumping bass line and few "woo-hoo!" throwbacks. "All That Remains," as hushed as "Permalight" is boisterous, closes the record with a brief, candle-lit benediction that begins with the hopeful line, "Now we're born again."
Rogue has said his aim was to make Permalight, which was recorded in Oxford, Miss., with Modest Mouse's Dennis Herring as producer, more "visceral." At first blush, the new record doesn't wander too far from the pattern set in the last two Rogue Wave albums: The acoustic underpinnings — earthy guitar strums and natural, bottom-heavy drumming — are there in practically every song. (The first record, Out of the Shadows, is Rogue going it solo.) On top of that platform, Rogue and bandmates do electronic cartwheels, adding brash synth layers and other beepy flourishes whenever possible. The prize for most processed song goes to "Good Morning," a big Beatles-esque tune that hops right into your cranium and won't leave. As for the overall danceability of Permalight, it never fully comes into fruition – this begins and ends as pop/rock record.
That's OK. Rogue's strong suit is sturdy pop that finds various ways of blooming. The gentle, ingratiating shuffle of "Sleepwalker" belies its darker mood. "I'll Never Leave You" is a lullaby fortified with sweet handclaps that practically steps up and kisses you on the cheek. Rogue isn't the most incisive lyricist (a trait he shares with The Shins' James Mercer) and the subject of making music is unfortunately what seems to be most on Rogue's mind. "Solitary Gun" talks about "setting the world on fire" but also mentions a death, and then the refrain comes back to that solitary gun, whatever that might be.
Still, he can make it work. For example, stand back and soak in the tour-de-force performance that is "We Will Make a Song Destroy." The straight up rocker massages the soft-loud-soft construction that worked wonders for the Pixies (whom Rogue Wave have covered, naturally) — swooping backing vocals, cowbell and more incredibly fierce drumming. If you aren't a Rogue Wave convert by the end, then that will just leave more room in the bouncing club for the rest of us.