One of the most frustrating things about being a critic is the need to feel like you’re “in the know” about things that “really matter”. Even worse is when you hear buzz from sources you trust about music that apparently everyone but you already knows and absolutely adores. And then there are those moments when you finally get a chance to hear this pre-approved darling and you think, “Huh?” (or at least, “Hmmm.”).
I’ve been generally impressed with just about every choice that the Parasol label family has made in which artists to promote and distribute. Even the discs that didn’t wow me at least had some merit, and as indie pop labels go, the Parasol family has long been behind some classic releases. And the more I kept up with Parasol labels, particularly Hidden Agenda, the more I heard about how great the Green Pajamas are. With some noted exceptions few bands receive such effusive praise from the Parasol group, so when I finally got the chance to dig into some Green Pajamas music with the release of this greatest hits comp, I leapt on it. And while being the wiser for it is good, I’m still left wondering exactly what genius I was supposed to hear.
For those who don’t know, the Green Pajamas are something of a Seattle version of the Go-Betweens. They released some music over the course of the ‘80s, took a hiatus in the very early ‘90s, and recently returned to the scene to start recording as a full time band once more. The center of the group is songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Jeff Kelly, who formed the Green Pajamas with Joe Ross in the early ‘80s, and despite the occasional input from members Eric Lichter and Laura Weller, the Green Pajamas is primarily Kelly’s vision. Since their 1997 reunification, the Green Pajamas have been pumping out a steady stream of critically acclaimed pop albums featuring a neo-psychedelic core, but washed in the guitar pop of the contemporary music scene. Through Glass Colored Roses collects band-selected numbers from all of the Green Pajamas’ releases since 1997’s Strung Behind the Sun through 2002’s Narcotic Kisses, and precedes a new album set to be released next year.
Although I’m not overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of any of these tracks, repeated listening proves the Green Pajamas to be a tough nut to crack. On the surface, they’re a melodic pop band with fuzzy, buzzy modern rock guitars. While the band has a slight rock kick, it’s very slight, and in some ways seeks to redefine mellow, despite some great solo guitar work. A part of this comes from Kelly’s voice. It’s soft and honeyed to a fault, often drifting through the songs in a breathy hush that sounds dreamy, sure, but also sleepy and languorous. While it can be effective in the context of the Green Pajamas sound, it’s not always the most compelling thing to listen to.
And yet, there is something that eventually begins to unfold from the songs on this collection. While the Green Pajamas come across on surface as a middling adult pop rock band, of which there are many, prolonged exposure to the songs begins to reveal some layered complexity to the hooks and melodies, and the band’s roots in the influence of the paisley underground era become more evident. As a band, the Green Pajamas are tight, good musicians and good songwriters, but all the same I can’t help imagining Emeril Lagasse begging the band to “kick it up a notch!”
Early on in the album, contrast becomes the most obvious example of how Kelly’s music comes with a certain amount of lag. Although from the same album (1998’s All Clues Lead to Megan’s Bed) and having similar lyrical imagery, “Death by Poisoning” and “Rattlesnake Kiss” are different for their energy. Though both light, psychedelic guitar pop songs, “Death by Poisoning” has a bouncy chorus and some soaring guitar work, and if the vocals never really explode then they at least differentiate a bit. But while “Rattlesnake Kiss” has some similar guitar work, it’s got an entirely plodding chorus and such a hesitant rhythm that it seems to clunk along methodically. Combined with the airiness of Kelly’s voice, it’s difficult to really get into the song, despite some interesting instrumentation.
Contrast also comes in the form of songs from other contributors to the Green Pajamas. Although they have both added more tracks to full studio length discs, Eric Lichter and Laura Weller get one song each as representatives here. Lichter’s track is the divergent “Sweet Moth”, which for some reason reminds me of Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”, though the two songs have little in common. “Sweet Moth” just sounds different than the typical Green Pajamas track because it mixes some layered studio electronics into the typical guitar pop formula and changes up the vocal patterns. Similarly, Weller’s harrowing suicide tale, “Downslide”, actually puts a little more punch in the guitars and her voice is a welcome change from Kelly’s, more befitting the song but also noteworthy just for being different. They’re both good songs in their own right, but on this disc they stand out as more energetic than their companions.
I would be remiss to discuss this disc without also mentioning the inclusion of “Kim the Waitress”, which opens the disc. Originally released by the Green Pajamas in 1986, the song was later re-recorded by Material Issue, and became a minor success for the band. It’s a classic example of Kelly’s lyrical insight, touching, witty, charming, and a little maudlin all at once. But this re-recorded version, produced especially for this disc, is a clunker here. Not only does it not show up the Material Issue version, despite being given more of an electric guitar punch, but it makes their original seem even more appropriate. Kelly’s delicate vocal touch just doesn’t mesh well with the attempts at rocking out.
I don’t mean to be overly harsh on Kelly’s work. There are some excellent songs on Through Glass Colored Roses, including “Just Another Perfect Day”, “High Waving Heather”, “Queen of Sunshine”, and most especially “Tomorrow Will Bring Rain”, where the standard guitar pop is given more swing than rock and turns the rolling song into something more exuberant than the lesser material here. But the soft and breathy approach quickly starts to feel bland over the long haul, and there are times when you find yourself wanting to tweak the knobs in the studio and spice the songs up a bit.
Through Glass Colored Roses might fall into the category of “Best of” albums that really will only immediately work on those who are already fans of the band. As a primer it’s a little bit difficult as it doesn’t contain the complexity and depth you’d hope for in a complete album. Then again, with repeated listens you begin to pull threads out of the songs that really stand out. Perhaps you shouldn’t have to work that hard at enjoying something, but at least it proves that there is more substance to the music than is obvious at first run through. I haven’t given up my faith in the Parasol family—and in fact I completely understand why they love the Green Pajamas so much—but it goes to show that taste is still subjective, and a good critic or audience will make up its own mind.