As if I needed more reasons to love Philly’s scene, Radiator Hospital comes through with their infectious new album Torch Song, streaming and generously downloadable now on Bandcamp but to be pressed in mid-August by Salinas Records.
Like good BBQ, Torch Song sticks to your ribs – every mouthful is a new experience that reveals the full profile of the flavors at work. Sure, you can pop any of these tracks onto a late-summer mix with great sonic satisfaction, but the album builds so well on its own foundation that it should be taken in as a whole. With each passing pair of minutes, the emotional and musical vernacular of writer/singer Sam Cook-Parrot (as well as the featured-too-rarely Cynthia Schemmer) becomes clearer and easier to parse. And though the histories are unique, these songs speak directly to their subjects to create a voyeuristic listening experience. In this way, Torch Song plays like reading a box of old letters – the lyrics become correspondence between strangers whose words you (or a person you’ve loved) have written/screamed/whimpered.
The effect is best showcased in the simply arranged “Fireworks”/“Fireworks (reprise)” that bookends the second half of the album. The former is delivered by Maryn Jones (of the excellent All Dogs), singing through her side of an unrequited longing as Cook-Parrot’s equally lonely reprise shows us the other side of the conversation. Cook-Parrot’s fervent vocals bring a sincerity to his response – this is a phone call not out of obligation, but of necessity. It is a familiar scene of friends who could have been lovers, but perhaps flirted too closely with the danger of verbalizing what they both knew was happening. The balance of her “You looked at me like I was your answer / I looked at you like you meant something” against his “You looked at me like I was your way out / I looked at you, thought I’d never stop lookin'” is feel-fuckin’-city.
Radiator Hospital keeps good company with The Ergs, Born Ruffians, The Dodos, The Dead Milkmen, Billy Bragg, Ted Leo, and occasionally The Tallest Man on Earth, but they stand alone when the complete topography of Torch Song is surveyed. Jangly powerpop tracks, fuzzy slow jams, singalong songs, swinging storytelling sessions – these markers all make an appearance. As always, the quartet’s versatility keeps them focused on claiming new territories in a variety of directions without leaning on tropes. Cook-Parrot and company have only grown since 2013’s Something Wild, whose genre-hopping felt more like a collection of songwriting experiments than a complete piece.
Still, Torch Song might have done well to take a few more pages from the softer moments, odd instrumentations and unique vocal arrangements that make Radiator Hospital’s back catalogue such a worthwhile visit. Maybe this is the price of stronger cohesiveness across the album? Hopefully the more bold facets of Cook-Parrot’s songwriting are merely dormant, giving Torch Song the chance to establish the band on a broader radar before seeping back into the fibers of future releases. Either way, Radiator Hospital has outdone themselves on this one.