The cover of Brave Baby's recently released sophomore LP Electric Friends features a heavily filtered beach illustration with the Earth hovering in the background, conjuring up a confusing swell of cosmic intrigue, nostalgic warmth, and spacious ambience.
Somehow, that all fits with the hard-to-tag rock 'n' roll the Charleston indie rock quintet makes.
The group made a big regional splash with their 2013 debut, Forty Bells, and quickly established themselves as one of the area's most buzzworthy acts, anchoring shimmering keyboards and huge hooks with intricate, full-bodied arrangements and triumphant choruses that have won the band comparisons to the likes of Arcade Fire and the Killers, two of the very last rock titans left on the popular music landscape.
As good as that record is, though, Electric Friends is a more definitive statement from the group. Featuring increased songwriting and vocal contributions from drummer Wolfgang Zimmerman, one of Charleston's principle recording gurus, the new songs include a confident tangle of guitars and keys that slide in and out of the mix with preternatural awareness. The grooves are slinkier and more expansive, emphatically creating the space for the cooing effortlessness of Zimmerman and frontman Keon Master's vocal interplay, harmonic blends that nod to iconic groups like Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles.
"I think we'd be lying if we said we weren't influenced by Tusk," admits Zimmerman. "It's not intentional. You can't help but be influenced by what comes in at times."
More importantly, though, he also agrees that Electric Friends marks a distinct forward progression for the band.
"[On Forty Bells], I kind of took over the production and played most of the keys and did most of the background vocals. Christian [Chidester] handled most of the music — any kind of guitar he pretty much played on the first album. And Keon took over most of the songwriting and lyrics. That was the old process," Zimmerman explains. "I think we've been slowly realizing our roles with one another and what makes us unique in our setup."
That setup includes former Sequoyah Prep School lead guitarist Jordan Hicks, whose bass lines on the new album Zimmerman calls "all our favorite parts," and Steven Walker, who despite having never played keyboards prior to joining the group, brought the trippy and eclectic array of riffs and sounds that define the record.
The real story of the album, though, lies in the musical conversation between Masters and Zimmerman. The drummer, while a confident percussionist and recording whiz, had never really felt comfortable making his furtive songwriting attempts public before Masters pushed him to take a more pivotal role.
"I didn't even want 'Atlantean Dreams' on the album," Zimmerman admits. "When we brought it in with everybody, it was kind of awkward and I felt weird about it, and Keon was like, 'If you guys don't like this song, I'm quitting the band!' He really pushed us to make that happen."
Zimmerman's songs also provide a fascinating lyrical counterpoint to Masters, something they both readily acknowledge.
"I had gone through a bunch of hilarious acid trips and had some life-changing realizations, and things that got put in the songs," says Zimmerman, whereas Masters tended to focus on personal relationships and twentysomething ennui. "When we started stacking up the tracks next to each other, a story kind of emerged and it was a conversation between Keon and me over the whole album. He had just finished college and was in this post-millennial funk, and I was tripping acid and staring at the moon and being a weirdo. I had all of this stuff that sounded like biblical revelation."
Masters says, echoing Zimmeran, "It's kind of about two guys who make music together who are experiencing different things, but at the same time experiencing very similar things too."
"He had this big spiritual breakthrough at this time, and I'm a spiritual guy too, but I also get in my way all the time, you know? And that's what I always end up writing about."
The bond between the two bandmates is abundantly apparent in conversation as it is on record, where they often sing together or offer rejoinders as much as they lead their own songs.
"We sing on even more stuff together [on Electric Friends]," points out Masters. "Some songs are mainly him or mainly me, but on a lot of songs we are going back and forth, or we kind of create the unison voice between the two of us."
He even calls the title track a "sort of love letter" to Zimmerman.
"The valley was yours, and I was trying hard to find my space/ But there's no doubt that I still feel strange," Masters sings on that sumptuous, earthy ballad. "I saw a lightning bulb jolt above your head, into a watery ledge/ You jumped on in after it/ It shocked you before, sure as hell's gonna shock you again/ But you'll be fine with your electric friends."
The phrase "electric friends" serves as a triumphant tag for a band that seems to have defined its sound and is clearly firing on all cylinders even as it straddles the worlds of pop and psychedelia and the disintegrating divide between indie insider and stadium rockers.
"I feel like we're sort of on this fault line," Zimmerman says. "We definitely have pop elements, but we're not quite poppy enough. We have indie and experimental elements, but we're not quite weird enough. Maybe people who don't like indie will like us, and people who don't like pop will also like us."