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A while back, my close pal Steve, who’s always a good two years ahead of me on the indie curve, began to urge meplead with me, actuallyto give Pinback a listen. He swore I’d fall in love. Unfortunately, he’d said the exact same thing about Belle and Sebastian, and he’d been right. A horrible addiction, Belle and Sebastian: cheaper than crack but far more socially stigmatizing. As a result, every time Steve would beg me to give Pinback’s eponymous debut a chance, I’d give him the cold shoulder, mumbling something about already having blown the rent money on import-only EPs.
Then I saw that Pinback had put out a second album, Blue Screen Life. And I thought, One listen couldn’t hurt me. And for once in my life, I was right. PinbackSan Diegoans Armistead Burwell Smith IV and Rob Crow, with some help on drums from Tom Zinserhas impeccable taste. Both Smith and Crow are fussy formalists with a penchant for producing perfect little pop gems that you couldn’t find a flaw in with a jeweler’s loupe. These things are so damn well-crafted that they sound computer-modeled. But the terrible truth is that, though I really enjoy Blue Screen Life when it’s playing, I can’t remember a thing about it when it’s not. I’ve listened to the disc innumerable times now, but I couldn’t hum one of its melodies if my life depended on it. And I will be perfectly content never to hear it again for as long as I live.
But maybe I’m just too much of a primitivist to ever truly love Pinback’s meticulously layered arrangements, perfect vocal harmonies, always-apropos use of samples and programmed drums, and understated, hypnotic melodies. I can appreciate them, sure. But, barring the odd set of dryly ironic lyrics, I prefer my music to be rudimentary and emotive rather than carefully constructed and cold. And Pinback’s sound is as chilly as a March morning in Banff, Canada, where many of the oddball photographs the band favors for its record sleeves seem to have been taken.
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That said, even a musical Neanderthal such as myself can appreciate the melancholic and beautiful “West,” which pairs piano and organ with some of the coolest double-tracked vocals since Phil Spector played mind games with John Lennon back in the mid-’70s. And you’d have to be the missing link to hate the claustrophobic yet exhilarating “Boo,” a slow man-in-a-submarine sagacomplete with Das Boot pingsthat’s every bit as haunting as anything by Sparklehorse or Grandaddy. I also love the way the intro to “Seville” brings to mind the beginning of the Who’s “Eminence Front,” not to mention the way the boys sing, “They’re gonna kill us all,” which sounds just a little too prescient. (But doesn’t everything these days?)
Unfortunately, few of the remaining tunes on Blue Screen Life are anywhere near as memorable as these. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pinback is one of those bands whose chief function seems to be to remind you of other bands that you like more. I hear echoes of Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and evencheck out the spine-tingling vocals on “West” and “Boo”Elliott Smith.
But that’s not the worst of it. If there’s one thing I hate more than a band that sounds just like another band, it’s a band that sounds like another band with all its rough edges sanded off. In Pinback’s case, the result is a musical tapioca that brings to mind later-period Steely Dan, cool jazz, and other abominations of modern life. Listen to Blue Screen Life in a mellow mood and what you have is smart, catchy pop. Put it on in a cynical mood, though, and you can distinctly hearwell, I don’t know what you hear, but I hear VH-1 creeping up behind me, like the regicide in Hamlet, to pour a numbing vial of insipid in my ear.
You can hear the siren call of VH-1 in “Concrete Seconds” as well as in the mock-reggae of “X.I.Y.,” which starts off like a track from some long-lost Police album before turning into a kind of slushy blend of Men at Work and (once again) Steely Dan. As for the moody “Talby,” all I have to say is “shades of Portishead.” I’d know that programmed Chinese-water-torture drumbeat anywhere. Which is a pity, because the lyrics, which have something to do with Viking kiddie rockers toiling in the “cellars of Norway,” are cool. The chorus”Play that song again and go to hell/When you die”is pretty cool, too. The same goes for “Prog,” which is as propulsive and as bouncy as Pinback gets, with a nice melody that you’ll instantly like but never really love. And it’s love we’re all looking for, isn’t it?
It wasn’t until I’d listened to Blue Screen Life for a week or so, going into a kind of inexplicable blackout every time I did, that I realized that this is background music. The kind of music you might hear hovering in the air at Starbucks, inoffensive yet oh-so-vaguely challenging. The kind of music you might, well, shop retail to. And, as it turns out, maybe you have. Because, according to a record-company press release I’m holding right here in my hand, back in October of last year, Urban Outfitters added Pinback’s debut into in-store rotation at all 42 of its stores nationwide.
Which explains why, every time I hear this damn band, I want to run out and buy a sweater. CP