San Diego duo Rob Crow and Armistead Smith IV, who record as Pinback, have made a career of transposing their personal kinship into simply constructed, lushly woven pop music, a kind of indie-rock formula practiced on their eponymous debut and perfected on the oft-overlooked 2001 gem Blue Screen Life: "Row Your Boat" spun softly in crushing minor keys, looped with soft, round high-and-low harmonies, the sonic parallel of the two finishing each otherís sentences.
Combining dramatic, ethereal pop vocals with moody guitar and piano theatrics, Summer
in Abaddon recalls
a tighter, smoothed-out Built to Spill, or maybe a Dismemberment Plan reunion.
On this, their latest full-length, Pinback evince two important truths about
the current state of their union, one surprising and one certain: They've pulled
back from the progressive experimentation of their 2003 EP Offcell's challenging
five-song freak-out, but at the same time continue to impress with extremely
creative arrangements that often utilize three, four, or even five competing
and conjoined melodies.
These 10 songs contain sundry gorgeous refrains that sway and swing, dancing and dangling, inside and among one another. While not the most energetic or innovative Pinback recording, Summer in Abaddon is nonetheless a stunning record, consistently piquing the ears and the imagination with a dynamic range of dramatic valleys and peaks, a bevy of beautiful melodies and clockwork-like musical chops.
"Non-Photo Blue" continues the band's drop-with-a-bang trend, kicking off the
record with its most accessible and, arguably, its best track.
Knife-like guitars slice the silence with a scalpel's precision, the drums popping
with a muscular presence that announces the band's arrival on the Touch and Go
label. Crow then enters with a cautious, caustic lyric about human failings amidst
modern technology: "She's posting all the time/ But the boards are down/ It's
a burned out building."
If James Cameron's bleak vision of futuristic killer robots traveling from the future to wreak havoc on society ever comes to pass, it's the paranoid sounds of Pinback that will provide the ominous score. Lyrical profundity, though it crops up in cryptic, unexpected spots throughout Pinback's oeuvre, is not this bandís primary draw; soon, the song's absolutely perfect dark-pop strains wash over the sometimes outlandish sci-fi words, Crow's stabbing delivery piercing the warm bubble of Smith's smooth backing textures.
"Sender" and "Syracuse" follow the wonderful opener with slow and steady builders,
pretty, hushed vocals draped over repetitious bass-line cushions that provide
a pulsing lead for pleasantly droning, round-robin melodies. "Blood's on Fire" is
the album's first and only misstep, its beautiful vibe-like undercurrent and
tinkling piano tracings not enough to rescue Crow's over-emoting chorus ("It's
not in the spark/ That's not in your eye.") But "Fortress" sheds the baggage
quickly, an upbeat drum pattern with light guitar vacillations allowing for ...Abaddon's
best lyrical/musical hook: "Stop/ It's too late/ I'm feeling frustrated/ I see
no sign of fortress."
Smith's and Crow's few instruments often just guitars, pianos and drums, both traditional and synthetic are orchestrated with the sophistication of an operetta, albeit a grey, sepia-shaded one, emerging and flexing and dropping off, all at just the right moments for full emotional effect.
"3X0" begins with a typically jagged and bulbous bass line taking the lead; Crow and Smith's looping soft-and-hard vocals make one think of a madrigal. But two minutes in, the pace quickens and the voices die away, letting the backing guitar piggyback the piano melody for a rousing, orgiastic climax, after which all goes silent for a feathery acoustic fadeout.
The album closes with two prog-pop numbers that sound closer to Offcell than ...Abaddon,
ending with "AFK"'s speak-shouting vocals ("Protect/ Enslave/ Engulf!/ Remember/
The Summer/ In Abaddon!"), falling off for an attractively textured, "Grey Machine"-like
Of all the things that can be said about these two musicians' interplay, of the sheer skill necessary to pull off the complex rhythmic changes and heavily layered arrangements called for by their dense compositions, the most important is that they succeed so simply in making the listener feel. For those sick of banal, so-called "emo" rock bands and the terribly reductive critic-terms like "shoegazer" that accompany them here's your cure, and another, more apt one-word characterization of Pinback: This music is, above all else, alive.