By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Since releasing 2005's Descending Like Vultures, Rogue Wave has found itself the victim of circumstances that pretty much measure up to its name. There was the split with Sub Pop, the record label that, among other successes, brought the San Francisco band exposure on TV shows such as Weeds, Friday Night Lights and Heroes. And to make things worse, at a time when the group was being trumpeted as the next Shins, its members were grappling with bigger issues than whether they'd be added to actor-director Zach Braff's next soundtrack about a life crisis.
Drummer Pat Spurgeon spent 2006 seeking a kidney donor for the second time in his 40 years. After surviving two tours on dialysis, Spurgeon's health had taken a sharp downward spiral. "We were worried he wasn't going to make it at all. His body was giving up on him," says frontman and group namesake Zach Rogue. After a couple of near-matches for kidneys failed, Spurgeon finally lucked out in the donor lottery and received an organ transplant in 2007.
After coping with Spurgeon's kidney failure as well as the loss of keyboardist Gram Lebron's father and Rogue's grandfather, Rogue Wave was ready for a little good fortune. Asleep at Heaven's Gate, the group's surprisingly hopeful fall 2007 release, marked a fresh luck streak and a release from the band's collective emotional damage.
"When we were thinking about making a new record, I thought we were going to do something really raw and primitive and not too many layers. [Vultures] was so roomy and ambient. I wanted to get away from that. But all these life experiences happened, and it was so heavy," says Rogue. When Rogue Wave did enter the studio, the walls of sound returned, giving the disc a roomy, ambient feel after all.
On Asleep, piano and keyboard melodies twinkle alongside long outbursts of noisy guitar pop. Moods shift from restrained acoustic reflections ("Missed") to cathartic chants and literal bells and whistles ("Own Your Own Home"). Rogue's hushed vocals give nearly every song a moving, lullaby-like quality, one that works whether he's expressing joy or, more often here, working through loss ("Ghost" and "Cheaper Than Therapy"). When the songs soar, as on triumphant opener "Harmonium" and the melancholy "Lake Michigan," you can feel college radio play lists making instant adds to their rotations.
Despite Asleep's many charms, however, early reviews of the record were mixed. The album requires patience. The songs are moody and occasionally understated, and the disc is long, clocking in at more than an hour. Unfortunately, patience is something that music bloggers—who more and more often decide the initial success of an album—don't have.
Rogue, who started the band in 2002, expresses frustration with bloggers. He complains that after one new single was previewed online, anonymous commenters spewed personal attacks on him and his band mates.
"Some of the stuff people said was so callous and rude, like, 'How dare you be so honest about your feelings? That's so passé. How could you be emotional in a song?'" Rogue says.
Exasperation with the music industry's gnatlike attention span made its way onto the new album in the form of "Phonytown." The track was written after Rogue Wave left Sub Pop and the group was negotiating with various record companies. "This guy was trying to get us to sign [to his label], and he says, 'I have to ask: The perception is that you're damaged goods. You're kinda done. Is this a risk we should be taking?' I was like, 'Damaged goods? We just started playing music,'" Rogue says with a laugh.
The good news for Rogue Wave is that, despite that incessant push for the next big flash on the charts, timelessness trumps fads every time. Asleep's stark contrast of a gorgeous pop album expressing an honest emotional ache stands outside expiration dates.