Jim Putnam, singer and guitarist for the Radar Brothers, was born and raised on good music. His father, Bill Putnam, founded Ocean Way Recording where he recorded the likes of Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, and the younger Putnam was in Medicine before forming the Radar Brothers in 1994.
So it's no surprise that all three Radar Brothers records are excursions in pristine low-tempo mood music. What is surprising is that despite their grandiose scenic melodies, the Radar Brothers's history reads sadly like entirely too many indie bands: signed to a major label (Restless) for their first record, dropped when sales weren't as high as expected, released second record on really small label (See Thru Broadcasting) to be finally picked up by a respected indie label (Merge). And, despite being nominated for a L.A. Weekly Music Award, the Radar Brothers haven't enjoyed much stardom at home. Hopefully with their new record, And the Surrounding Mountains, all that will change and Los Angeles's best-kept secret will be a secret no longer.
Like all great bands, the Radar Brothers don't overcomplicate their songs: Steve Goodfriend's drums are laid way back, Putnam's guitar chords are crisp and simple, and Senon Williams's bass lines add just enough low end to hold the sustaining guitar chords in place. Although each Radar Brothers song has similar elements, making them all sound like extensions of each other, there's always a good hook that sticks with you; it's subversive, artful melody crafting.
And the Surrounding Mountains is lusher than previous Radar Brothers records; it was recorded in Putnam's newly renovated home studio, renamed Phase III. There's often piano, carrying or accenting a melody, and the guitar chords are played on the upstrum, accenting the high notes. The songs are waltz-like, at a walking pace, and the lyrics are often situational narratives, with fleeting and reoccurring images. There's a lot of family ("You and the Father," "Sisters," "Uncles" and "Mothers") and swords and cars and bodies of water and mountains. Every Radar Brothers release has some sort of panoramic photo image on it of a purely Western scene; on the first full-length it's palm trees against a strangely deep blue-green sky; the inside cover is the sky just after the sun has set. The Singing Hatchet, their second album, has a cover photo of a guy standing on what looks to be a rocky mountaintop, waving against a clear blue sky. And the cover of And The Surrounding Mountains is a stratified photo montage of roads and horizons and mountains. This is important because it's this kind of scenery that saturates every Radar Brothers soundscape; their music is described on the Merge Records website as "sun soaked." It's desert-like, purely Western Sunday afternoon Interstate driving music, the perfect calm to remedy Tucson's mid-October schizophrenic weather shifts.
The Radar Brothers perform with Black Heart Procession, Kill Me Tomorrow and Calexico on Friday, October 18, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Tickets are $12. For more information call 622-8848.