Following up a classic album is never easy. Roughly 99.9 percent of bands or artists lucky enough to make something that stands out as a paragon of their genre never get within range of it ever again. That seemed to be the case with Rocketship. Their 1996 album A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness is a brilliant distillation of indie pop sweetness, chamber pop skill, shoegaze softness, and dream pop hooks played on space-age keyboards and perfectly jangled guitars and sung by a chorus of voices dialed in on the special frequency between lovelorn and melancholy. It's a definitive album that perfectly sums up a moment in time, and after its release, the band embarked on a series of left turns that included an ambient album, a steady churn of bandmembers, split singles on small labels, and a strange and experimental self-released record in 2006. Around then, the group's guiding force, Dusty Reske, pursued non-musical endeavors, but he came back to music in the 2010s and began exploring new sonic avenues. After all the time that had elapsed after A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness, it seemed good enough that he was still plugging away and somehow too much to ask that he make another great album.
Cue the record scratch sound effect because 2019's Thanks to You is exactly that. Working mainly with vocalist Ellen Osborn, Reske concocted a record that nearly measures up to their debut in every way, and it's clear that while time has passed and there are new elements added to Rocketship's sound, Reske's gifts as a writer and producer haven't faded at all. Whether dipping back into the space-age shoegaze sound (complete with vintage organ chords) on the opening "Under Streetlights Shadows," spacing out on dreamy, drum machine and synth ballads ("A Terrible Fix"), mixing glitter-ball disco grooves with distorted guitars on "Nothing Deep Inside," or channeling the Pet Shop Boys on the swooning synth pop-inspired "Outer Otherness," he creates sounds that are familiar and unexpected at the same time, while delivering hooks that land instantly and dig in deep. Osborn is a perfect vocal foil, equally at home taking on a modern pop song like "What's the Use of Books?," harmonizing with Reske's reedy voice on noisy shoegaze tracks or on the soaring chorus of the gobsmackingly pretty "City, Fair," or tripping lightly through the tricky melodies of the Smiths-in-space "Broken Musicbox." Reske deploys Osborn's voice perfectly and occasionally takes the lead himself, which is a nice balance and forges a link to the classic Rocketship sound. Thanks to You isn't only a wonderfully crafted follow-up to A Certain Smile, it reestablishes Reske as a sonic wizard with a few new tricks left to share. Best of all, it's music that thrills the ears, moves the heart, and both recaptures what was great about mid-'90s indie pop and shows how great it can be in 2019 as well.