Let’s take a quick history lesson for the artsy Chicago band California Wives. They formed in 2009, self-released an EP in 2010 to a fair amount of buzz, and started touring nationally. One of their biggest career highlights so far came last fall when Peter Hook, formerly of Joy Division/New Order, invited the band to open for him on the Chicago date of his tour demoralizing performing Joy Division’s Closer. Considering California Wives sound a lot like classic New Order, the selection made a lot of sense. After fully solidifying their lineup earlier this year, the band signed to Vagrant Records in the spring and began to prepare their debut full length album. The result is Art History, and like so many bands it features a collection of the best songs they’ve written since their earliest days. That means 4/5ths of the Affair EP is here, plus a bunch of stuff they’ve been performing for awhile now but have never officially recorded before. Producer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Neon Indian) helped the band reinvent their sound a bit though, and as a result even the stuff you might otherwise have been familiar with is tweaked in such a way that it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. Songs like “Blood Red Youth” and “Purple” get 30-60 seconds chopped off their runtimes in the interest of being more concise. Some of the more jangly guitar parts and heavy bass lines get whitewashed over or placed further back in the mix to streamline the songs just a bit more too. The New Order comparisons aren’t quite so apt anymore, though they retain that ’80s sheen thanks to the heavy use of synths. Now they’re probably best classified as The Cure filtered through the more modern lens of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. That works well enough for them, as Art History winds up being a day-glo pop journey that satisfies at every turn with melodies and hooks that will get stuck in your head for days. The highlights are mostly carryovers from the Affair EP, and they’re spread out generously across the album, making minor moments like “Los Angeles” and “Better Home” seem like better songs because they’re sandwiched in between two great ones. A couple brand new songs like “Marianne” and “The Fisher King” do well on their own too, with the former perhaps making the band’s strongest single to date. So yes, there are plenty of things to love about this album. There are also some not-so-great things too. Creatively speaing, Art History doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it even try to. It is by all accounts a very “safe” record, and that lack of exploration can make you feel like you’ve heard some of these songs before and done better. While many of these songs have memorable hooks, you’re sometimes left wondering if they stick with you because they’re genuinely good or simply because they repeat them so many times. How many times, you ask? Well, in the nearly four minutes that are “Tokyo,” the hook hits you 10 times. On “Twenty Three” that grand total is 8. Both are quite a bit higher than average, and that’s just two examples of many on the album. And while they don’t have to abide by traditional song structures to make an impact, the lack of a bridge in pretty much every song is just a little confounding too. What Art History amounts to in the end is a promising debut from a band that needs more time to develop and find their own niche. These songs are superficially pleasing enough to build a strong worldwide audience for California Wives, and if popularity is what they want it’s within their reach. As for critical acclaim, that one’s going to take some work.
California Wives – Purple
California Wives – Marianne