Fueled by Rob Crow's trenchant if depressing lyrics and his sweet, high pitched vocals, Pinback employs the old sad-words-plus-pretty-pop-music dichotomy to the best effect yet on Autumn Seraphs. In the three years since Pinback last released an album, nerdy, self-deprecating, sensitive indie-rock has continued to climb in popularity, from mid-sized concert halls to the stadiums. The San Diego-based duo's fourth release is really their poppiest and most accessible to date, as even the most cursory listen to the obvious single, the Heatmiser-ish "Nothing to Nowhere" will attest. Perhaps they can get their songs onto Gossip Girl or The Hills and be playing Madison Square Garden next week? You get the sense that Zach Smith and Rob Crow would be making their levitating pop music whether it was for a drunken house party crowd or in some giant dome. --Mike McGonigal
Review by John Bush
Creators of some of the most intricately and expertly woven indie rock of the 2000s, Pinback don't disappoint with their fourth record, Autumn of the Seraphs. As twin cogs Zach Smith and Rob Crow have matured, they've grown from (slightly) meandering mopes to expert constructors of songs that reveal hidden layers with nearly every listen. Acolytes of the Police, the group channel their energy into a fluid dynamic of songwriting, performance, and production. "From Nothing to Nowhere" is a driving opener, but from there Pinback go in unexpected directions. Early highlights "Barnes" and "Good to Sea" twist a recipe of individual ingredients -- wistful harmonies, plangent basslines, spidery guitars, and wry lyrics ("it's good to see you...it's good to see you go") -- into an excellent dish. Aside from their own majority contributions, the duo get help from a pair of drummers -- Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, Sea of Tombs) and Chris Prescott (No Knife) -- and use programmed beats on several tracks. The effect is a good one, since Pinback have always relied on the precision of their arrangements and their wintry sound to carry the effect of their dour songs.
Autumn of the Seraphs
[Touch and Go; 2007]
While Pinback never shied away from using drum machines, the quiet electronic percussion that introduces "How We Breathe" sounds much like the mark of a grandfather clock-- apt for a band long built from the Swiss-watch-slick rhythms and the sophisticated interplay between the strings of Armistead B. Smith IV and Rob Crow. If the band has curveballs to throw, they've saved them for EPs, and otherwise tucked them almost invisibly into elaborately constructed pop songs that somehow make all the weird twists and turns into something homogeneously "pretty." If there's a gripe to be had with them, it's that a surface listen reveals a whole lot of lovely tones and not much else, and Autumn of the Seraphs is just as uniformly gorgeous and tasteful as any Pinback record. Consistency is a bitch sometimes.
Seraphs lacks the some of the depth and organic detail that made Pinback's Summer in Abaddon a standout, but if that record had a fault, it was trading atmosphere for any sort of catharsis (even if it fit the record's theme). Autumn of the Seraphs, on the other hand, returns to warmer, more familiar tones, including the busy, gently funky interplay and wide hooks that fans have come to expect. The quick and bubbling beat of the first song and lead-off single, "From Nothing to Nowhere", plays Smith's gentle warnings off of Crow's staccato dismissals, and has an insistence that proves all their quiet class could use a boot in the crack from their punk side. It's a reassuring three minutes that seems nearly epic, but if you're looking for that kind of energy on the rest of the album, you'll be disappointed-- Seraphs lacks the same jolt in tempo on the whole, and probably could have benefited from it.
But there's no point in begrudging Pinback for something they've never really done to begin with. That Seraphs happens to be a more satisfying front-to-back listen than any of their previous records shouldn't be overlooked. "Barnes" juxtaposes the relaxing, wide-open reverberating strum of the chorus with the mesmerizing math-influenced interplay that leads up to it. "Good to Sea" skips by on a reverberating tone like a video game reward leading the listener through the cascading electronic percussion and calmly-delivered dark lyrics ("Oh no, I hit rock bottom"). The deliberate pacing of "How We Breathe" could have slid easily into the drowsy middle of Abaddon, but the similarly slow "Walters" announces its intentions early with a few faraway distorted notes, then preceding-- and earning-- the final release with a lulling, hypnotic group pulse.
The sluggish end of the album's first half does pay off, first with the deliberate "Subbing for Eden" with a sharp vocal hook from Crow tossed as a lifeline, then with "Devil You Know", a convenient capsule of Pinback's appeal: palm-muted guitars dance through the intro, sing-song vocals sprout harmonies and become a round, and a simple descending piano figure opens up the tension before a sour guitar line soon tears through all that accumulated grace. The song ends up somewhere totally different, but equally evocative. Latter tracks like "Torch" and "Bouquet" lean on the familiar electronic beats of the group's material, but benefit from bolder vocals (from Smith especially, whose solo spots command more attention than on previous outings) and the layering that they've learned from Abaddon.
I can't blame anyone who finds it relentlessly pretty, but I could never call them lacking in ideas-- just committed to using the same ones and varying them ever so slightly. If the evidence isn't in the two principals' long and varied resumes, it's in the corners of songs like "Devil You Know" or "Blue Harvest", gently stretching the formula to just the point of tearing by layering little incongruous details that still fit perfectly into the context of the song. I'll grant that their records can be fatiguing, but take any of these songs on its own, listen to it three times consecutively, and guaranteed you'll hear something different each time. Odd that Abaddon was titled as a summer record and this one autumn, as Abaddon sounded drawn inward from the burn of frost, and the resilient charm of Autumn of the Seraphs evokes all we can get away with during the last dimly lit late evenings of summer.
-Jason Crock, September 12, 2007