What's that old cliché about "the more things change"? The Radar Bros' sixth album finds Jim Putnam breaking in yet another lineup of the band, with the singer, guitarist, and songwriter partnering with Be Hussey (ex-Morsel) on bass, keyboards, and guitar, and Stevie Treichel on drums and percussion. But a new set of collaborators hasn't had much audible impact on the Radar Bros; The Illustrated Garden is still dominated by the same sort of graceful but languid melodies and artfully incongruous lyrics that have been Putnam's stock in trade since the group's first album in 1996. The Illustrated Garden does feel a bit livelier and more concise than its immediate precursor, 2008's Auditorium; the interplay between the musicians feels honest and organic, and "Rainbow" and "Quarry" suggest that Putnam and his compatriots could have actually rocked out if they'd had the ambition. Hussey and Treichel are good foils for Putnam in the studio, lending fine harmony vocals and helping to create a sound that's surprisingly rich and carefully detailed for a trio. But even though Putnam obviously knows how to write a pretty melody, he doesn't have a similar gift for making them stand out from one another, and this music often has the sort of immediate familiarity that isn't at all welcome. And while the random right angles of the lyrics serve as a clever counterpoint to the tuneful melodies, the trick would work better if the vocals ever called attention to themselves. Too much of The Illustrated Garden suggests not just music that appeared on earlier Radar Bros albums, but music that appeared earlier on The Illustrated Garden; there's no arguing Putnam has a genuine talent for writing melodies and giving them shape in the studio, but he needs to add more colors to his palate if he expects people to come back to hear the same tale again and again.
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