Wand - Plum
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After exploding on the scene with three thrilling albums of psychedelic fuzz released quickly in succession during 2014-2015, L.A. trio Wand took a step back. Two of the members (leader Cory Hanson, drummer Evan Burrows) ended up joining Ty Segall's touring band, then Hanson put out a solo album, the acid folk-inspired The Unborn Capitalist from Limbo, in 2016. When Wand started working again it was with a couple major changes: they added two new members and shifted their band politics from dictatorship to democracy. In the past, Hanson had brought songs in and the other guys filled them in; now the bandmembers worked songs out together in their rehearsal space. Regardless of one's political inclinations, it's rare for a band to go from one person making all the calls to spreading the work around without it causing a major decline in quality. Sometimes a ship needs a captain to keep on course. Sadly, as Plum proves, that's definitely the case with Wand. The band's new approach charts them away from intense guitar workouts that verged on heavy metal and stickily claustrophobic psych pop toward a more traditional indie rock sound that's not a million miles away from what bands like Wilco are doing. Simple melodies, twisting twin-guitar lines, obtuse keyboards, and a widescreen expansiveness are the order of the day, and only occasionally do Wand Mk II manage to wrestle their new sound into submission and make something interesting of it. For example, "Charles de Gaulle" is brainy and full of hooks, with sweet vocals from new keyboardist Sofia Arreguin that offset Hanson's harsher tone, and the skittering "White Cat" is nervous, punchy, and not too far from something John Dwyer might cook up for his Damaged Bug project. Mostly, though, there's either something important missing (energy, wildness, drama) or something unnecessary added (fancy keyboards, a sense of restraint), and it's impossible to listen to Plum without wondering why Hanson changed things so drastically when they were working so well. Why did he think that the world needed another slick indie rock combo when he and Wand were riding high atop the mountain of psych rock bands? This is a question the three very long songs that end the album -- the slow-rolling ballad "The Trap," the elongated and very indulgent tie-dyed jam "Blue Cloud," and "Driving," a trad rock ballad tailor-made for montage scenes on a major network drama -- will give one plenty of time to ponder as the mind wanders and attention is spirited away like someone must have spirited away all of Hanson's best guitar pedals. It's a clunky end to a disappointing album, one that sounds less like a reinvention and more like a giant step down a path best left unexplored further. Maybe they can strip back down to a trio, get their pedals back, and return to being a first-class psych band instead of second-rate indie rock troubadours.