Arriving in the early months of 2017, Bonny Doon’s self-titled debut was a warm introduction to the band for many. Hazy and bright, the album’s woozy melodies and swirling webs of summery guitar textures were easily ingested as low-key slacker pop, blissfully awash in lo-fi sensibilities and dreamy ambiance. But the nonchalant breeziness belied a serious attention to songcraft that beckoned careful listening, and hinted at depths yet unexplored. Lo and behold, before the ink was even dry on the first record, work had already begun on its follow-up Longwave, a conscious about-face from the sonic experimentation of the first album, and a journey inward.
In the spring of 2016 Bonny Doon decamped to a remote part of Michigan, nesting near the evocatively named Mystic Lake, and spent a week uprooting former approaches and reinventing their sound anew. Moving into more improvisational territory, the band wrote quickly and from the hip, using repetitive chord structures to aid in spontaneous generation. Attracted to the session’s spacious arrangements and unaffected sounds, they went immediately into Key Club studio to capture the new material in much the same way. Working for the first time outside of home recording settings with engineer Bill Skibbe and longtime friend and collaborator Shelley Salant, the experience allowed for a focused concentration on bringing the intrinsic spirit of the group to the surface.
Opting for spontaneity and simplicity over the exploration of layers and textures that defined the first record, the band architected an incredibly intimate sound for these new songs. The album was tracked with minimal overdubs or production flourishes, constructing a frame that is spare and understated in the same way as the twilight-tinted third Velvet Underground album or the rusty glow of Bill Fay’s Time of Last Persecution. Several songs were approached as meditations on subtlety, shifting only between two or three chords without deviation, dynamically expanding and contracting without ever actually changing. Other songs were born from complete improvisation, and it’s in these moments that the radically organic approach to Longwave truly comes into focus. The session aimed to capture the band at their essence. With the superfluous stripped away, a gentle but steadfast spiritual core is revealed as the backbone of Bonny Doon’s cosmic American music.
While the spartan production centers the collection’s delicate beauty, it is unified thematically by its interiority. The album unfolds almost as one uninterrupted conversation with self. Sometimes the discourse is earnest and compassionate, as on the approximate title track “Long Wave,” other times it is laced with self-aware whimsy to lighten the load, as with the wandering “I Am Here (I Am Alive)”. The songs on Longwave amble through moonlit fields of melancholy guitar leads and self-reflection, but in characteristic fashion, Bonny Doon never lose sight of the potency of humor to carry the water. The familiar crooked smile looms lovingly throughout the churning lope of “A Lotta Things”, as well as on “Saved”, a playful yet pointed critique of the savior narratives connected to the redevelopment of the band’s hometown Detroit, artfully assimilated into the record’s spiritual vocabulary. Midway through “Saved” you can hear the band stumble and then decide to keep playing, a candid moment that encapsulates the spirit of Longwave. It isn’t time for another take, or to douse the song in a new idea or effect, but rather to continue observing the moment at hand and follow wherever it leads.