The Helium Tapes isn't wasting any time. The band released its self-titled debut last fall and now, a mere fourteen months later, the excellent Ghost Wave capitalizes on that album's hallmarks — minor-key psych-pop, fuzz-bombed guitar leads and sweet-and-sour female vocals — while tightening and refining its approach. Singer and guitarist Sunyatta Marshall throws down the gauntlet every chance she gets — and although her vocals on the previous record were always sufficient but often indistinct, there's no missing her here. On the opening track "Falling Behind," Marshall rises above the rumbling drums, loping bass line and snaking guitar notes. There's never a lot of menace in her voice, but when coupled with the ominous instrumentation, it sound like she's staring daggers at you through the speakers. It's a spooky, beguiling introduction to an album that uses power-pop smarts to ensnare listeners with songs about burgeoning desires, potent kiss-offs and soaring reveries.
While Marshall is the Helium Tapes' focal point, her bandmates do a crucial job of setting the tone and mood. Guitarist Tim Lohmann is Marshall's aural sparring partner, and while his swirling, serpentine riffs are more reined in this time around, his use of economy focuses the energy back to the song's center. Former bassist Brandon Mason has moved to keyboards, and the band is so much the better for the '70s and '80s textures he provides. The vibrato-heavy combo organ gives a garage-rock streak to "Oh! My Heart" and Eno-esque string pads fill out the echoing dub-pop of "Bleeding Hearts Run Dry." New bassist Jarrod Burkemper earns his keep by providing a buoyant, melodic counterpoint (especially on the fervent "Airplane to Your Room"), although every so often he and drummer Joe Stulce drift apart and dissipate the mechanical precision that propels many of these songs. Ghost Wave is the sound of a band that is simultaneously hitting its stride while still developing its sound — and if we're lucky, the Helium Tapes will keep up this writing-and-recording pace.
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