When Bruiser and Bicycle released their 2019 debut, Woods Come Find Me, the Animal Collective comparisons were inevitable. Though unsuspecting and humble in nature, their lo-fi sound tapped into similar vocal hijinks and manic acoustic arrangements as Sung Tongs, prompting a pavlovian response for anyone who ever bookmarked Said the Gramophone on Internet Explorer. Founded by multi-instrumentalists Nick Whittemore and Keegan Graziane, Bruiser and Bicycle spent four years perfecting their follow-up, Holy Red Wagon, and honing their identity away from their freak-folk touchstones. While the comparisons are still easy to draw, the band embarks on its own winding adventures with the help of drummer Joe Taurone. What sounds at first like free-spirited chaos settles into a strange rhythm, like three different heartbeats that just happen to intertwine snugly.
Though Whittemore and Graziane started writing Holy Red Wagon pre-pandemic, the restlessness of 2020 influenced the spirit of the project. The two started individually writing and demoing tracks to show each other—a first for the band—and continuously modified them as time stretched on forever. “I had this need to create as big of a space as possible through music because I was being so compressed in [my studio apartment],” Graziane told Post-Trash. After all that refining, their songs evolved into intricate, tightly crocheted doilies that are dizzying up close but transform into a singular design from afar—hence the median song runtime of seven minutes. On standout “Unknown Orchard,” a retelling of the Garden of Eden through the eyes of a tour guide pointing out the forbidden knowledge dangling within reach, a claustrophobic 5/4 time signature expands into something playful and spacious. Guitars flicker atop a jovial indie-rock hook before segueing into freeform jazz-funk. It’s one of many mid-song change-ups, a staple of their songwriting that reflects a desire to indulge while keeping the overall delivery tidy and light.
Bruiser and Bicycle allotted another lengthy chunk of time for production and mixing, allowing for a similarly meticulous process. Inspired by Dave Fridmann’s production on the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic, they asked producer Scoops Dardaris to emphasize the drums for a loud, saturated tone and a hi-fi sheen on the rest of the instruments. You can hear the effect toward the end of “1000 Engines” when Taurone transitions from a jittery syncopated beat fit for the Dodos into a blown-out crash that swallows the mix whole: drilling the snare, showering the toms in a rain of bullets, and rattling his sticks on the cymbals. This attention to detail is evident through each song: the keyboard straight out of a ’70s horror film that buzzes loudly over the start of “Superdealer,” the squealing synth of a dystopian radio dial in “Lunette Fields Speak,” the searing guitar notes over carnivalesque melodies in “Aerial Shipyards.” Holy Red Wagon overflows with these production tricks that roughen up the texture while smoothing the edges of their moving parts.
As staunch congregants at the altar of multi-tracking, Bruiser and Bicycle build their songs like post-modern skyscrapers, stacking level after level until it all seems precarious. That density can be deceptive; take “Forks of the Jailhouse,” a breezy jangle-pop earworm reminiscent of Real Estate that, in reality, has so many layers that it initially crashed Pro Tools. Their maximalist approach surfaces most obviously in Whittemore and Graziane’s shared vocals, which are key to those Animal Collective comparisons. Whittemore channels his inner Avey Tare with warbled falsettos and giddy enunciation, especially in the wordless harmonies of “Aerial Shipyards” and the descending vocal lines of “1000 Engines.” Closer “We Thought the Sky” picks up where Fall Be Kind’s “What Would I Want? Sky” left off, shooing away the 2009 clouds of bong smoke for a sensation more like heat shimmering above scalding pavement. They go full power-pop on the vocal harmonies, even breaking out the “ba ba ba’s” before a surrealist synth melody wiggles into frame and their yells turn psychedelic: “Give me your arms in the sunlight/We wanna build the sky.” It’s a dreamlike pursuit, but Bruiser and Bicycle make it clear they’re up to the task.