On ‘Smash,’ Caveman Bring Big Hooks On Layered & Atmospheric Synths (ALBUM REVIEW)

New York synth-pop group Caveman had to self-release their first album, 2011’s CoCo Beware – but it wasn’t long before word of mouth brought that album a rerelease on Fat Possum. By 2013, its follow-up the self-titled Caveman had begun to make big waves in the indie world. Its title proving apt as the band had widdled their sound down to something immediately distinct from their peers and created a draw for their growing fan base. It’s melodic and detached, an album filled to the brim with layered, atmospheric synths and pulsating drums, all guided by Matt Iwanusa’s enveloping vocals.

Caveman was a great album, but one that the band could have easily been restrained by. Instead, the band moved towards the middle with 2016’s pop-forward Otero War, a middling and forgettable album that alienated fans and didn’t do much for the band’s critical favor either. Luckily, Caveman has turned away from that bloated and strangely sci-fi outing to split the difference on their newest album. 

Smash is as hooky as Otero and as dense as Caveman, but with more structure and purpose. Smash was the nickname of Iwanusa’s cousin who died prior to recording and whose death helped lend a guiding purpose to the record. Iwanusa himself sounds refreshed, lending some of his more emotional vocals takes throughout and giving the band a sense of gravitas, they haven’t seen in a while. Meanwhile, the band manages their best pop turn yet, mixing their synthy roots with a heavy late period Strokes influence on “Helpless”, a bright moment that never feels out of place amongst its more languid moody neighbors. 

The album itself does its best to incorporate those disparate soundscapes throughout but that template is not always successful. On “River”, s decent incorporation of chimey keyboard effects and synthy melodrama, turns to milquetoast on a boilerplate pop bridge and chorus, a typical issue the band hasn’t kicked from their last outing. At its best moments though, Caveman’s turn towards pop works well with some genuinely extravagant and lush arrangements, as on the jaunty “You Got a Feeling” and the almost War on Drugs-esque “Awake”, moments that show the band as diverse and disciplined.

Caveman has always been approachable, but on Smash the band is able to navigate into a more poppy type of indie rock their earliest fans can still appreciate. On the finale track “Don’t Call Me” Iwanusa croons as if he was back in 2013, finding the right balance of synth to huge, processed drums for his sad-sack demeanor. If it wasn’t for the shimmering keys, it could’ve come off Caveman. Smash isn’t perfect but it’s as good of a mid-career correction as bands can usually get.

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