Published Oct 11, 2018Throughout Valley Maker's Rhododendron, Austin Crane, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Human Geography, maintains a focused effort to parse contemporary America, including its exclusionary migratory policies. It's not the first time academia has influenced Crane's songwriting — his 2010 debut record, which centred on stories from the Book of Genesis, was his senior thesis project. While the idea of an album washed in academics sounds like a recipe for blandness, Crane's lyrical nuances are enough to keep your attention.
The sonic style of Rhododendron is akin to the fog of Crane's home base of Seattle. The songs are dense and gloomy, anchored by Crane's thunderous guitar playing, and his flat, albeit engaging, vocals. While this thick soundscape on songs like "Be Born Today" and "Wonder" feels like an impending thunderstorm that doesn't break, elsewhere this steadiness nicely counteracts Crane's anxieties and the sense of doom that is ever-present on the record. On the verbose "Baby, In Your Kingdom" or the quick tempo "Light On the Ground," for instance, Crane moves forward and tries to find brightness in the world.
Tucked in the dense brush of Rhododendron, in the soft-pop standout "Rise Up," lies Crane's key message: to stand up for inclusion. On this track he calls out his "foolish nation" and cries "the end is nigh," but Crane also takes the time to reminds us that it doesn't have to be the end if we, as he repeats, rise up. (Frenchkiss)