Radar Bros.-The Singing Hatchet
February 9, 2013
The Singing Hatchet(See Thru/Chemikal Underground 1999)
At first listen, the Radar Bros sound like any number of 90s sad sacks enamored with grandiose crescendos and morose sentiments set to song. A quick stroll through my admittedly hazy memories uncovers a panoply of Acetones, Lows, Idahos, American Analog Sets and Red House Painters equally enamored with this weathered, but worthwhile formula. At the time, I thought of every single one of these bands as my sullen stalwarts on those rainy days that bled into lonely nights, but time has eaten away at their charms. What was once soothing and intimate to these ears, now sounds bloated and boring. However, the Radar Bros are still as cozy as an afghan blanket. Yeah, they mined the same territory as the rest, but there has always been something panoramic and ostentatious about their music. To be honest, the real reason I love this band, especially their work on The Singing Hatchet and its followup And the Surrounding Mountains, is how it all falls somewhere between the vibe of a slow-motion Pink Floyd ballad and Neil Young at his most bruised and confused. That’s a bit of a dishonest and hyperbolic statement since the Radar Bros aren’t even in the same stratosphere as either, but they do a stellar job of conjuring up the same troubled, but beautiful hoodoo of both. During the 90s and early 2000s, Radar Bros just kind of perfected this languorous, glacial pace that served as the perfect canvas for some honest to god anthems that kind of make you wish they were big in the 70s so you could smoke a bowl and wave a lighter as they plodded through imaginary hit after imaginary hit.
The Singing Hatchet is one of the unsung albums of the 90s. The opening track “Shifty Lies” is kind of the most perfect and sublime beginning to an album that seems mired in defeatist posture. Hell, the chorus to the song is “shifty lies and senseless visions, overflow like frozen rivers, stand in line and watch the time, you’re cattled up and weeks behind, how long, how long until we reach the bottom of the lake?” It starts off like some 70s cosmic Country and Western meditation until it suddenly swells and rises to an almost proggy chorus glorifying resignation and ennui. It’s kind of epic in its own minor league way. It paints the lovable loser as unlikely hero who sees life as it truly is.
The rest of the album just grows more dour. “You’re on an Island” amps up the 70s prog quotient with some intro that sounds like an Alan Parsons Project instrumental that stumbles into some existential ballad where our protagonist kind of wonders a bit too hard about lost love a bit too much. In fact, it’s kind of creepy. I guess that’s another reason why I like this album. There’s some unsettling themes going on underneath the Live at Pompeii vibe. In fact, “Shoveling Sons” is kind of macabre too as it centers around some apocalyptic tale about young men digging the graves of the old as the earth crawls to its inevitable end. I like how the story doesn’t match the instrumentation which carries on as if its some stoned anthem about lazy days in a hammock. It’s kind of one long bummer after another, but there is something so soothing and relaxing about how each song gently eases you down another notch toward a crummy mood. I guess that’s why I gravitate to The Singing Hatchet so much. It’s kind of a thematically perfect narrative about a protagonist who gradually loses the will to fight and grows to like it.