In the race to classify the formidable sounds devised by Philadelphia-via-Hudson quartet Palm, genres are constantly tossed in and out of the running. Owing to their use of odd-metered melodies, math rock is most common, but universally rejected by the band themselves. Art rock comes in close second, a solid attempt at capturing the constant friction between the barbed abstractions etching their way across the songs. On past releases like last year’s Shadow Expert EP, where those jagged edges were a little more pronounced, that might’ve done the trick.
Less than a year later, sitting atop the treasure trove of marvelous tunes that is Rock Island, the problem presents itself again. Allow me to suggest a solution: Rock Island is Palm’s dream pop record. But beyond the typical sense of reverb-soaked vocals and extensive reliance on atmosphere, Palm returns with songs that speak the erratic language of dreams. Far from the disorienting structures that dominated their earlier work, the world of Rock Island is almost instantly familiar. Give your ears a few bars to adjust to the surroundings and each track begins to operate on an inviting and singular internal logic that only peels apart as its component parts fade into memory.
Question how those guitars are dancing impossible steps around the drums, how the dimensions of the songs shrink and expand so freely, or why steel drums of all things are just about everywhere, and you’ll scratch your head all day long. Sink into it, let it sweep you away, take in the hazy tropical scenery. The more you surrender, the more vibrant and addicting it becomes. Spend a day on Rock Island and you might end up pleasantly marooned.
In contrast to previous efforts, there’s an invigorating sense of conceptual wholeness to the proceedings this time around. Even as dual vocalist/guitarists Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt develop further into their own unique styles, the grab-bag approach of yesteryear falls by the wayside. It’s almost a shame that Palm have moved in the direction of prominent vocals; the twin instrumental tracks “Theme From Rock Island,” a sprightly bossa nova jam, and “20664,” a taste of subterranean footwork, would make phenomenal soundtrack pieces if they weren’t busy populating Rock Island with strange flora and fauna.
But it's not much of a shame, as the vocal work on this record is razor sharp, with clearer presentation and direction than ever. “Dog Milk” is far and away the poppiest cut Palm has produced, with Kasra taking point on a rollercoaster of sunny Beach Boys harmonies surrounded by a glittering panorama of MIDI steel drums that’ll have you grinning ear to ear, and his turn on the lumbering 8-bit sunbather “Swimmer” adds a dreary touch to the Cluster-attempts-reggae backing. Eve Alpert is no slouch, outdoing her beautiful work on Shadow Expert’s title track with a few R&B vocal slides on prog-pop opener “Pearly” and taking lead on shoegaze fantasy closer “Didn’t What You Want Happen,” bookending the record with two takes on surrealist crooning. Drummer Hugo Stanley and bassist Gerasimos Livitsanos round out the band with locked-in, yet highly embellished grooves that propel a constantly undulating wall of sound through arrangements that, despite massive sonic shifts, never feel too busy or haphazard.
Rock Island is the first record where Palm truly settles into a consensus of sound, owning their position at the vanguard of a psychedelic renaissance, tapping into the subconscious for a futuristic vision that dwells on the boundary between inner and outer space. Catch a glimpse before they dissolve it entirely.