The lads of Pittsburgh foursome Monarch have been quite busy over the past year, playing countless shows and winning both the adoration of audiences and the respect of fellow musicians with their soaring, piano-and-synth-drenched indie rock. They signed with Orange County indie outpost Northern Records, and are showcasing next week at Austin's celebrated South by Southwest music conference. In between, they put together their first adventure on wax: The Grandeur That Was Rome.
Ponderous title aside, Rome is a honey of a debut. Recorded in southern California last summer and co-produced by the band with stellar producer/engineer Andrew D. Prickett, the album is an intriguing mix of brash, unchecked youth and the darker undertones of relationship confusion.
Rome's most beguiling characteristic is its divergence from the band's live show. The album doesn't exactly capture the swirl and spectacle of live Monarch, but it succeeds on other, more unexpected levels. Relatively unadorned ballads like "Just Perfect," "I Have Deihl," and the slightly creepy "Now You See It/Now You Don't" resonate with strength and warmth. And while the live experience hinges on the marvel of singer Brennan Strawn's sweeping, airy tenor, Rome works best when the songs are clearly in focus. The yearning "Wasteful" is a wistful gem, and the taut "Leap Years" fuses the emotion of Bends-era Radiohead with the minor-key anti-balladry of Amnesiac.
Monarch has never attempted to hide its affection for England's brooding, paranoid saviors of rock, but there is a particular naiveté, a guilelessness to the band and the music that makes the lyrical disquiet that pervades much of Rome remarkably compelling. Rome is Monarch's very own teen-age symphony to God, and Strawn sounds as if he's working over his conscience to a better end, a goal in sight if not always in reach.
Rome is a grand first step for a band that boasts only two members of legal drinking age and that has miles of raw talent and even more potential. It's the sound of a band in love with itself for the first time, and as it continues to find its voice, Monarch is undoubtedly a band to watch.