The debut album from Chicago quartet California Wives, Art History, is a well-executed take on new wave nostalgia, but fails to leave the listener with all the warm, fuzzy feelings that accompany the genre’s quintessential records.
Art History has a familiary sound. Glamorous guitars and sheets of synths surround the nasal, hushed vocals of lead singer Jayson Kramer while he sings big melodies. It’s a style that’s had success and California Wives stick to it.
“Blood Red Youth” is the most engaging track on the album. Its shifting layers allow individual lines — drums, guitar, bass and vocals — to star at separate times. The nuanced composition creates a bigger payoff with the band goes all in at the end of the track.
After that, Art History repeats the formula time after time and it gradually loses its charm. It sounds fine, but it feels too safe.
Thematically, California Wives are painting by the numbers. Songs about youth? Check. Romantic, but unsure dreams of “the big city?” Check. Colors? Check. It’s fitting and well-worn territory in neo-John Hughes soundscapes.
California Wives is clearly talented, but it sounds very much like a group figuring out how to make music. On Art History, they are treaded lightly to avoid a big flop. The band minimized risk by sticking to a formula, but it makes their debut ridgid.
California Wives will open for Stars at the Cat's Cradle on September 26. Tickets are $22 in advance.