Outside of Pavement's Wowee Zowee and a handful of Yo La Tengo albums, indie rock bands aren't really known for their stylistic variety. Instead, they tend to have a sound that can't concretely be summed up with simple genre labels...other than “indie rock”, I guess. So it's something of a treat to hear an indie band who not only blend the influences of a few different kinds of music, but also do so successfully while sounding like themselves and not just a band who have a country song, a reggae song, etc.
Like Wowee Zowee, Bloom Cheek is just under an hour long and encompasses What Laura Say's takes on various sounds. Whether it's Built To Spill/Modest Mouse style indie rock ('Training'), wide eyed white boy soul ('Bloom Cheek'), Dr. Dog style 60s pop/rock ('I Suppose'), The Police's summery reggae trading blows with The Shins circa Chutes Too Narrow ('Grocery List'), or My Morning Jacket's classic rock guitars meet Grizzly Bear's potent vocals (the sublime 'Gardener Of Wonders'), you constantly get the sense that this band aren't just dabbling with genres to make up for a paucity of ideas. Rather, they've gotten inside of these styles and tinkered until they mastered not just the surface but what makes it truly work underneath. The rustic, Fleet Foxes style vocal harmonies of 'Tape It Spoke' are spot on, of course, but the track is just as much brilliant for the acoustic guitar interplay and the unexpected keyboards that bring it to a close.
While it may be far easier to play 'spot the influence' with Bloom Cheek than it was with Wowee Zowee, that's no strike against it. Some bands thrive on their sprawl and variety; hell, jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead are virtually defined by the way they consciously dabble in genres. Besides, Wowee Zowee was almost entirely variations on 'underground' rock, punk rock, college rock, and indie rock; only 'Father To A Sister Of Thought' could qualify as a non something rock song. At the same time, part of what makes Wowee Zowee such a fun listen is the way it includes the tracks that other bands would consider undercooked, short throwaways. It's an album of sprawl and excess, but that doesn't mean the songs are long and intricate. A healthy amount of the album is spent on two minute-ish tracks that hit on an idea and almost immediately move on. By contrast, Bloom Cheek also has sprawl and excess, but each song is packed with ideas that are either completely developed or give way to unexpected delights. Witness the six minute 'Lines And Colours', which opens in eerie country/folk territory before organs and keyboards usher in a full on electric guitar assault at the 3:22 mark, this then giving way to an elongated ambient/minimalist outro.
What Laura Says must have sweated over the track listing of Bloom Cheek, because it moves smoothly from one idea to the next with a breathless flow that allows it to feel half as long as it really is. It helps that there are some interesting piano interludes between songs, like the break between the jaunty 'I Suppose' and the roadhouse blues-rock of 'Keep Running Shoes Special.' But you can also tell the band have a keen feel for pacing, following the funk/rock instrumental 'Roll Some Coin' with the grooving 70s AOR ballad 'I'd Dance For You.'
It would be a damn shame if Bloom Cheek got lost in the wave of excellent releases from established bands that we've seen so far this year. Though this is only their sophomore release, What Laura Says show all the finesse and songwriting ability of a band with several albums under their feet. That they were able to simultaneously recall and synthesize so many different bands and sounds into their own DNA is an impressive achievement. If this album doesn't go down as their jump to wider recognition, it will go down as one of 2010's hidden gems.