Seeing a side-project emerge from a member of a favorite band presents a quandary
familiar to any self-professed music fan: Prevail, and a potential death-knell
is signaled for the band as the side-project becomes the artist's prime
focus; fail, and the creative worth of a valued artist is publicly and,
sometimes, personally diminished.
So it is with Systems Officer, the newborn project of Armistead "Zack" Smith, one half of the criminally undervalued California indie-pop duo Pinback. Thankfully (or, perhaps, perilously), his self-titled first effort succeeds swimmingly: Systems Officer is
full of plaintive longing and emotional largesse, a brief but affecting quintet
of compositions that sound a lot like the work of, well, a stripped-down,
For those at all familiar with that band's pithy, profound oeuvre, the similarities are a cause
célèbre. In 1998 Rob Crow and "Zack" Smith separately affiliated, respectively, with the San Diego bands Thingy and Three Mile Pilot linked up to produce one of the very best records of the year, and one of the finest lo-fi bows in recent memory.
The resulting longplayer Pinback brought to mind a dimly-lit spiral staircase.
Lyrically disturbing, the album was a twisted blend of engaging melodies and
MIDI engineering, a bedroom masterpiece; it begat the band's true nonpareil,
the lush 2001 dark-rock showcase Blue Screen Life.
Last year's hypo-angular EP Offcell offered up even edgier soundscapes,
and Smith's debut as Systems Officer similarly displays the hard-earned songwriting
skill that can come from toiling at one's craft in obscurity for years.
Indeed, the only immediate signifier that this isn't the next Pinback release is the dearth of Crow's distinctive nasal drawl: "Forever This Cyanide" delivers the record via Smith's favorite weapon, a finely woven tapestry of muted lead bass and minimalist percussion. "There it goes in my atmosphere/ And I'm choking on their dreams," he sings. His words will be welcomed by those used to hearing Crow croon on Pinback recordings about topics such as drowning, depression and dying too soon.
The music, however, isn't morose. Along with Pinback's tone, Smith smartly borrows much of its song structure. From the beautiful looping layers of the opener to the jumpy, ska-flecked rhythms of the title track, and on to the mountain of melody that Smith scales on the hair-raising closer, "Hael," Systems Officer plays out much like Offcell's five-movement sonata, its own tempo-shifting tunes variations on a pitch-perfect theme.
After "Forever This Cyanide" concludes its expositional groundwork, Smith follows
with the song "Systems Officer." Synthesized guitar lines and staccato drums
segue to the soft, slow-building "Signature Red," a Blue Screen Life lullaby
with Smith's tranquil vocals marrying perfectly a too-beautiful minor-key backing.
Nearly halfway through the song and, at this point, the album the
chorus shifts seamlessly to major-key, and Smith delivers his record's biggest
payoff. Tenuous bridge "Desert/Sea" has the unfortunate privilege of coming next,
and not surprisingly, with its catchy but undercooked piano and bass combo,
it's the only flat cut on this ep.
All is forgiven quickly, though, when Systems Officer begins its recapitulation. "Hael" might
seem musically simple, but repeated listening reveals the depth of Smith's songcraft.
The music consists of vacillating piano chords and a towed-in bass that anchor
this stunning piece to the ground, while on top a Matrix-like choir of multitracked
Smiths coo macabre premonitions of their own demise. "Someday I will fall," he
repeats more than five or six times, before a single guitar line countering his
vocal melody answers and the affair fades drowsily out and into black. If Smith
continues making Prozac music this prom-queen pretty, it'll happen later than