Kalmia Traver’s voice is an incredibly dynamic instrument—a joyous lightning rod that immediately charms anyone in its path. And the singer’s “yes wave” electricity helped fuel Rubblebucket’s first two LPs (including 2011’s criminally underrated Omega La La), as the Brooklyn septet nimbly bred horn-driven Afro-funk grooves with infectious, synth-splattered indie-rock. In 2013, Traver was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but (perhaps healed by her sheer positivity) she overcome that dreaded disease—just in time to unleash Survival Sounds, produced by indie messiah John Congleton (who seems to have sprinkled his sonic pixie dust on just about every Pitchfork-friendly LP of the past decade). In short, a good year.
Survival Sounds should be a victory lap for a hard-working band endlessly relegated to the indie-blog bubble. And it is, sort of: With Congleton’s help, they’ve focused their choruses and trimmed back the fringes of their freewheeling arrangements—resulting in a less expansive, more easily digestible approach. The tunes are still augmented with polyrhythmic percussion and tasteful horn blasts—but these elements are used more as sonic decoration, sacrificing a bit of the band’s signature funkiness.
“Carousel Ride” is built around distorted, surprisingly straight-ahead power chords and a spazzy synth lead, with the brass mostly relegated to soft shadings. “Think I was a bird in another life,” Traver sings, embracing the cyclical nature of finite life in a simple cadence not unlike a bedtime lullaby. “Maybe that’s why I’m prone to flight / And I do like heights.” You keep waiting for a psychedelic breakdown or jazz-fusion drift, but it never comes. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with this hooky, spirited tune—but these more simplistic moments (the disco-oriented “Rewind,” the bluesy “Middle”) feel less unique than what surrounds them.
On that latter front is lead single “Sound of Erasing,” an anthemic sing-along built on evocative R&B synth pattern and Traver’s high-flying vocal acrobatics. The horns finally take center stage on the propulsive and dreamy “Origami,” which is basically the musical equivalent of dropping a Mentos into a Diet Coke, while “Major Roxy” showcases the band’s intricate interplay, utilizing buzzing-bee synths and muted, stereo-panned, call-and-response trumpets.
On Survival Sounds, Rubblebucket veer a bit closer to the indie-rock norm, stripping back in order to expose. Hell, if any band deserves a commercial breakthrough, it’s them—and the best moments here suggest a healthy meeting point between their weird universe and the outside world. Let’s just hope they keep that lightning rod sharp.