Album Of The Week: Wand Laughing Matter

Album Of The Week: Wand Laughing Matter

There are a lot of disgruntled Radiohead fans out there. Although the Oxford combo remains one of the world’s most beloved bands, a subset of listeners still longs for the sound they rode to fame in the ’90s: a depressive yet high-flying strain of guitar rock that sidestepped the era’s prevailing grunge and Britpop trends, instead becoming a popular new template of its own. Ever since 2000’s Kid A, when Radiohead pivoted from guitars and Thom Yorke’s angelic falsetto played hard to get, certain O.G. devotees have loudly lamented the death of the band they once loved. Even the generously poppy and guitar-centric In Rainbows was not enough for some people.

To those people, I’d like to recommend the new Wand album.

Relatedly, there may now be some disgruntled Wand fans out there. Since forming in Los Angeles in 2013, Cory Hanson’s band has undergone a metamorphosis of its own, one that ramped up to hyperspeed in the latter half of this decade. Hanson is best known as part of the California garage rock scene orbiting Ty Segall. Before starting Wand, he was a member of Meatbodies, Together PANGEA, and Mikal Cronin’s backing band. In 2016, well after Wand had established itself, Hanson and Wand drummer Evan Burrows were part of the Muggers, the band that backed up Segall on his Emotional Mugger album. Between those stints as a side player came a prolific burst of creativity that saw Wand release their first three albums in a 14-month span. On Ganglion Reef, Golem, and 1000 Days, Wand flourished as a garage-psych power trio, exploring all corners of a sound that blended Beatles catchiness with Sabbath heaviness.

There were incremental changes between each of those albums, but the true transformation began with 2017’s Plum. In the two years after Wand’s initial flurry of albums, Hanson made an ornate psych-folk solo LP called The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo, added two members to Wand, and rebooted his creative process to incorporate input from the rest of the band. The full-throttle intensity that had characterized Wand’s early work gave way to a looser, artsier aesthetic — still capable of erupting, but just as likely to stretch out and set a mood. They were now a band that could evoke Spoon, Wilco, Zeppelin, Galaxie 500, and even Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” without losing their sense of self.

The record contained multitudes, and it dealt with a multitude of sorrows — death, breakups, and the shock of the 2016 election among them. As Hanson told me at the time, “It really helped to have all of us together, because in the end, when all this shit was going down, we were kind of all that we had.” Bound together in their suffering, Wand became the proverbial diamond formed under pressure. They were suddenly a more complex, refined, expansive band than the garage blasters who first came rocketing into the underground. A unit built on pure intensity had discovered a broader dynamic and stylistic range and, in the process, graduated from a star in Segall’s galaxy into a sprawling constellation all its own. The exploration continued on last year’s Perfume EP, which at seven tracks and 29 minutes might as well have been a full-length album. And it’s still going strong on Laughing Matter, their new LP out this week, which cements Wand’s status as one of the most exciting bands in indie rock.

Laughing Matter is another inspired collection of songs derived from dark circumstances, specifically this modern dystopia we all inhabit. Promotional materials bill it as “a record about love in a time of terror,” and appropriately enough it channels the voice of one of rock’s great doomsayers. They’ve been inching this direction on their recent records, but somehow I, a self-professed Radiohead fanboy, didn’t notice the way Hanson’s high-range tenor was beginning to resemble Thom Yorke — or maybe of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes doing a very good Yorke impression. Yet set against songs that often resemble Radiohead at their spaced-out, guitar-slinging peak, the resemblance is uncanny.

Just listen to the way Hanson delivers lines like “We are not afraid of you no more” amidst the airborne shimmer of opening track “Scarecrow,” or the way his voice dances across the loose modulating keyboard groove of “xoxo” while spinning Yorke-ian imagery about leading children to the valley. Either one could be an OK Computer outtake. The hard-charging power-pop number “Walkie Talkie” hits more like a long-lost Bends B-side. Somewhere in between exist the floaty and propulsive “Thin Air,” the weary dirge “Evening Star,” the angelic ballad “High Plains Drifter,” and the punctuated guitar jubilation outbursts of “Wonder” (“Listen to this panic attack/ It’s screaming in your head”). I am loath to belabor the Radiohead comparison, but song after song demands it.

If your feelings toward Radiohead could best be communicated with masturbatory hand gestures and a disgusted facial expression, this may scan as bad news. I promise it’s not. Wand are still their own entity. They’re five talented musicians who’ve developed a rare synchronicity, that locked-in state where it feels like they’ll never make a false step again. Their unique charms become clear in instrumental stretches like the twangy guitar pile-ups in “Rio Grande” and the trio of lovely ambient tracks that dot the trackist. And on the back half of the album, they make the case that they’re nobody’s tribute band.

Consider “Airplane,” a song about seeking respite in the highest heights and deepest depths. Keyboardist Sofia Arreguin lends gorgeous abstract narration to nine minutes of what may be literal rising action: “Well I almost laughed down the tears I saw welling in your eyes/ And the kiss from a bird flying by my side.” Not until about two-thirds of the way through the song does the sound of a distorted guitar come combusting into the mix, a cloud of chaos swallowing up the placid drift. It’s an epic exercise in rewarded patience that wouldn’t be out of place on Yo La Tengo’s I Can Feel The Heart Beating As One (speaking of bands that arguably reached their zenith in 1997).

The static-infested organ rave-up “Lucky’s Sight” may be the sound of the band falling out of “Airplane” and plummeting downward. Arreguin returns to lead vocals on the celestial lullaby “Wonder II,” on which a steady heartbeat mirrors the panic attacks of the original “Wonder.” Fourteen tracks in, it feels like the completion of a journey. As an epilogue we get “Jennifer’s Gone,” a gentle Lou Reed homage of the highest order, introduced by Evan Burrows at his most pessimistic: “Jennifer’s gone and there is no turning back/ All of the people that you have loved will turn bad.”

Maybe fans who fell in love with Wand’s original iteration feel similarly jilted. Their days as supreme psychedelic blasters on In The Red are long gone, and they don’t seem to be coming back. But it’s like I tell apostate Radiohead fans: Those old records haven’t been erased. You can continue to enjoy them as you always did. They just happen to now serve as the bedrock for an adventurous, rewarding discography that extends well beyond the band’s original constraints. Wand are in the zone, working as quickly as ever and seemingly discovering new powers with each successive release. Although it’s hard to dispute Hanson’s dour outlook on the state of humanity, the future spreading out in front of his band has never been more exciting.

Other albums of note out this week:
•Lizzo’s exuberant star turn Cuz I Love You.
You Can’t Sit With Us, the great new rap posse album from Saba’s Pivot Gang.
•Heather Woods Broderick’s stirring folk-rock return Invitation.
•Cellist and producer Kelsey Lu’s avant-pop collection Blood.
•Patrick Carney and John Petkovic’s debut Sad Planets album Akron, Ohio.
•Drugdealer’s latest lush psych excursion Raw Honey.
•The O’Jays’ farewell album The Last Word.
•Allo Darlin’ offshoot Elva’s debut Winter Sun.
•Diane Coffee’s digital glam offering Internet Arms.
•The Tallest Man On Earth’s latest singer-songwriter set I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream.
•Judy And The Jerks’ fast, fun, loud DIY punk LP Music For Donuts.
•Chokehold’s hardcore comeback With This Thread I Hold On.
•Fat White Family’s satirical UK indie-rocker Serf’s Up!
•Cage The Elephant’s latest Southern-fried alt-rock collection Social Cues.
•TR/ST’s hard-hitting industrial rave collection The Destroyer – 1.
•Flaural’s psych-pop odyssey Postponement.
•Self Defense Family’s Performative Guilt EP.

more from Album Of The Week