Wild Pink’s A Billion Little Lights was born from the seeds of a more sprawling project, a double album about the American West that frontman John Ross eventually dialed back. Even in its abridged final form, though, the sense of sweep remains. Everything about the album’s synth-heightened heartland rock is wired for maximum impact, from the production, which frames Ross’ songs like aerial shots of the Grand Canyon, to keyboards that sparkle and glisten as if queued to a light show that for now exists only in Ross’ head. A bid for the big time from a band that has so far largely fallen under the radar, A Billion Little Lights is indie rock at its most instantly gratifying and undemanding.
Ross had been teasing that he had an album like this in him for a while. Splitting the difference between War on Drugs’ pastoral Americana and Death Cab for Cutie’s sensitive guitar rock, Wild Pink’s first two albums were so stacked with warm arrangements and amiable melodies that seemingly every critic who heard them wondered why the band hadn’t found a wider audience. But neither of those albums conjure the scale of A Billion Little Lights. Recorded with producer David Greenbaum, who engineered Beck‘s glossiest projects (Morning Phase, Colors, Hyperspace) the album builds out the American dioramas of its predecessors into full Hollywood sets. “The Shining But Tropical” is majestically maximalist, filtering the rousing synths of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. anthems though the delirious, fog-machine haze of M83’s Saturdays = Youth.
Ross’ greatest limitation remains his voice, which could charitably be called soft-spoken. Mostly he finds ways to make it work for him. Ratboys singer Julia Steiner accompanies him on much of the album, and her vocals brighten the songs even as they usually scan a shade sadder than Ross’. His modest vocals help keep the focus on those rippling arrangements, although occasionally, when his songs brush against Tom Petty’s working-class country rock, the effect is like a Super Bowl pickup truck commercial voiced over by a “This American Life” contributor. Ross’ small, sweet voice also disguises how barbed his lyrics can be. On paper, the chorus of the peppy “You Can Have It Back” basically amounts to “take your love and shove it,” but his voice is so polite it sounds like he’s wishing his ex well. His amiable delivery similarly tempers the album’s sharpest dig on “Oversharers Anonymous,” where he sings “You’re a fucking baby but your pain is valid, too.”
Ross frequently turns to daydreaming, and many songs contain elements of fantasy; he spends an entire verse of “Oversharers Anonymous” imagining buffalo hunters in the Old West. Yet much as it longs for an earlier era of America, A Billion Little Lights’ greatest nostalgia is for a more recent past, the indie-rock boom years of the late ’00s and early ’10s, when the genre looked as if it could still be a big tent. “Track Mud” opens with images of the Pacific Coast and the Rockies, but mostly it sounds like a postcard from Bon Iver’s Bon Iver. Elsewhere there are shades of the comforting hush of Iron & Wine and the hand-crocheted folk of Sufjan Stevens, alongside the expected generous pinches of War on Drugs. None of these sounds are past their expiration date, of course, and at their best Wild Pink demonstrate how inspired they can still be. But if A Billion Little Lights doesn’t always awe quite like it should, given its considerable zeal and craftsmanship, it’s because of that familiarity. The album has a big heart and big ambitions to match. The only thing missing is the very thing these songs long for the most: the thrill of discovery.
Buy: Rough Trade
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