The Rocketboys have come a long way since their humble beginnings in Abilene playing small venues to crowds of college kids. They now have a pretty good album, 20,000 Ghosts, that has production credits to a name-drop-worthy role call. Produced by Louie Lino, who has worked with east coast acts such as Nada Surf and Matt Pond, and mastered by indie-noodler Alan Douches, Ghosts is cut from a very decadent indie-rock cloth. The quintet can be seen on the cover distantly perched on a rock amidst fog and trees, in a sort of minimal and drab mystical setting, and it calls to mind the very present ethereal space supplied in the layers of 20,000 Ghosts — an album that sounds full but also finds a way to breath in between passages of ambient indie rock and piano-laced ballads.
From the album opener, “We are a Lighthouse”, one gets the feeling that a general sense of power-pop melancholy pervades the latitudes of this album, and it does for the most part. “Are you running, are you scared/ are you a stranger passing through here,” front man Brandon Kinder quells over arpeggiated guitars and pianos, much to the affect of a Coldplay B-side. The same goes for the nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek “Islands” - where the Rocketboys turn the questionable phrase “and for lack of a better word, I’m not an island” into a moderately engaging hook — and the radio-friendly melodic pop of “Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune”.
These tracks are the foundation of the sound the Rocketboys have crafted along with their noteworthy accomplices in the studio. They have done so meticulously, outfitting every song with subtle changes in rhythm and dynamics, thanks to a capable rhythm section, and accompanying guitar work that give every song its peaks and its residual lows.
The Rocketboys really fly on tracks like “All the Western Winds” and “Like Ice in Water”, where the quintet embodies Coldplay’s darker older stepbrother, Radiohead. These tracks are given to more emotive passages both lyrically and musically. The subtle refrain in “All the Western Winds” offers an airy, lilting prelude to the abrasive, drum-heavy, shoe-gazer finale, which is quite triumphant even amidst an album built upon the Rocketboys ability to contrast song dynamics. The indie gun goes off in “Like Ice in Water” as the Rocketboys canter on a dark, brooding, dance beat and Kinder sings “Time is all we have, and I am just collecting” in between stints of breathy falsetto.
20,000 Ghosts is a big album. The sound-scapes tend to call to mind pastoral views of natural expanses, shimmering horizons, sunsets, sunrises, city lights and all of the imagery that lends itself to that kind of classic, existential “who am I?” thinking. Ghosts aims at the big picture and asks big questions, even halting in their indie revelry at times to intone fleeting thoughts of mortality and the effect of time’s passage on people’s lives. Still, the Rocketboys manage to pick up on some details along the way, though they’re much harder to discern due to the consistent production quality of the album: melancholy and ambient with guitars that sort of cut through the texture at appropriate times.
This does well to give those bigger songs a kick, but it tends to make the more intimate and conceptual tunes that add to the overall “album” experience a bit long-winded and ill fitting. “Nineteen Twenty Nine”, a spiritual for 20-something Caucasians, seems to try to cut too deep a mark into the listener with its scenes of a funeral march. “Did you hear gospel songs/ Could you hear our tears making them sound wrong,” is a nice, heartfelt lyric but when the drawbar organ cascades in, it becomes too much. Album closer, “I Saw a Stone” manages to remain flat-lined, Kinder whispering reminiscences until the four-minute mark at which point the Rocketboys attempt to end in a full-band three-minute crescendo. Their attempt to properly close the album, bless their hearts, sadly becomes a sort exercise in unnecessary grandeur.
A likeable album, yes, but the Rocketboys’ general demeanor on 20,000 Ghosts is that of every piano-led power-pop band (i.e. Coldplay, Keane, The Fray) and that kind of suspended melodic rock sound has grown a bit tired in this reviewer’s ears. The only official affronts on behalf of the Rocketboys are when the band is deliberately trying to write heartache into their songs (in “Take it From Me”, Kinder regretfully uses the word “bequeath”, which has absolutely no place in any serious rock band). The Rocketboys, and consequently 20,000, are at their best when they are carving out their own musings to create something not heartfelt, but honest.