Guster, ‘Evermotion’ – Album Review
Guster started out in the early '90s as your average two-acoustic-guitars-and-a-set-of-bongos folk-pop band, and while those humble beginnings may have produced some music that fits a little too cleanly into the stereotype image of young white guys playing in a Tufts dorm room, they also gave the band members a solid set of restrictions to fight against; as a result, the first few Guster records offer a progressively richer picture of a group discovering its strengths while testing the rigidity of its self-imposed sonic limitations.
This period reached its arguable apex with 1999's 'Lost and Gone Forever,' a sadly overlooked gem that found the trio working with producer Steve Lillywhite to spin a quirky web of sound that used everything from whistling to typewriters to support a sweet, yet deceptively dark, set of songs whose hummable melodies couched starkly emotional themes. That album didn't get the attention it deserved, but it was the first Guster LP to chart, and its slow-building success set the template for the band's next decade and change while helping fuel the flashes of outsized ambition that added extra muscle to subsequent releases like 2003's 'Keep It Together' and 2006's 'Ganging Up On the Sun.'
But while each Guster record has peaked a little higher on the Billboard chart, the experimental bursts that once signified a band in search of itself have slowly faded, replaced by a sanded-off version of their earlier sound that lacks in evident hunger what it seems to have gained in confidence. The band's seventh studio LP, 'Evermotion,' is their most resolutely tasteful to date -- and while this mid-tempo parade of cleanly produced pop tunes doesn't give the listener anything to complain about, neither does it offer much in the way of memorable songs.
Part of the problem, as has been progressively the case over the last decade, is guitarist/vocalist Adam Gardner's all-but-invisibility in the vocal mix. Where he once shared leads with guitarist/vocalist Ryan Miller, Gardner has faded almost completely into the background during recent efforts -- sort of the late-period Oates to Miller's Hall -- and it's robbed the songs of an audio tonic that used to cut the group's sonic sweetness with just enough vinegar.
This isn't to lay the blame at Miller's feet, necessarily; only the band members really know why they've made any of the countless changes they've agreed to along the way. But whatever the reasons for it, Gardner's reduced role hurts the band, bleaching out a color that can't be replaced no matter how busy the arrangements might get.
That said, it's worth reiterating that there aren't really any bad songs bundled into 'Evermotion's' 11-track running order, just a bunch that are pleasant in an inoffensively background sort of way. Given the marvelous promise of the group's earlier efforts, that has to count as a disappointment, even if it's one that most longtime fans will be willing to accept as part of a longer journey.
"I'm not a simple machine, I have become something else," Miller sings on 'Simple Machine.' "I'll never find my way back / I'll never find my way back home." That observation sounds a bittersweet note here, but this is still a band on a journey; here's hoping they find their way to richer pastures the next time out.