The Handbag Memoirs, a six-song EP-sized slice of indiepop fun, comes from a somewhat unlikely source, a Detroit area band named Pas/Cal. While most of garage-happy Detroit roughs up their guitars, tosses out their basses, polishes up their rock star poses, and waits to get signed to V2, Pas/Cal traffic in pretty, falsetto male vocals, cutesy keyboards, bouncy horn sections, and cleverer-than-clever lyrics. They dress in mod suits and sweater sets and pore over fashion magazines. They troll garage sales for vintage instruments and slave over every nuance of their compositions and recordings. They’re a throwback to an era not too many in Detroit are throwing back to.
Pas/Cal is the kind of band where everyone’s name is just too perfect to be real. Casimer Pascal is the band’s namesake, vocalist, and main songwriter. Gene Corduroy plays lead guitar. Little Tommy Daniels (or “LTD”, as he’s christened in the liner notes) is the percussionist. Additional support on the EP is provided by characters named Mortain, Dan Ladouceur, and the First James Last Singers, and affiliations with hepcats named Nathaniel Burgundy, Bem, and Richard Panic are mentioned in the band’s press material. The whole outfit sounds like some kind of mod gang whose only weapons are their flash guitars and their cuban-heeled boots.
Like the similarly sophisticated Belle and Sebastian, Pas/Cal are good at coming up with song titles that pique your curiosity and tickle your funny bone. The EP’s tongue-twisting first track, “The Bronze Beached Boys”, is an uptempo ‘60s pastiche. Think Apples in Stereo, Holiday, just about the whole Parasol Records roster, and you get the idea. It’s lovingly rendered, beautifully produced, and lots of fun. “I’d Bet My Life That You Bet Your Life” covers less sunny lyrical territory, mourning a childhood idol’s wasted potential. The toe-tapping musical accompaniment and Pascal’s note-perfect singing belie the bitterness of lyrics like “And I was quite assured / By someone who is known to never lie / You were a bona fide poet, yeah / And I would bet my life / That you bet your life / And you’ve blown it”.
“I Wanna Take You out in Your Holiday Sweater” is the catchiest track on the album, a little lyrical back-and-forth with an ascending chorus and a whole lot of “la la la"s. It’s been running through my head almost non-stop since I first heard it, and since I haven’t taken to cursing Pas/Cal’s name for such “torture” I count that as a good sign. “Grown Men Go Go” is less pretty than the first three tracks, featuring some dirty-sounding musical accompaniment, some honest-to-goodness guitar distortion, and a bad case of sexual insecurity.
Though Pas/Cal’s origins can supposedly be traced to a dare between Corduroy and Pascal to write a three-minute pop song as quickly as they could, the EP’s final two songs demonstrate that what separates Pas/Cal from less talented bands working in the same genre is that they don’t just stick to that three-minute catchy song after three-minute catchy song formula. “Marion/Mariam” is an instrumental built on a simple repeated melody that’s augmented with varying musical accompaniment throughout the piece. Instrumental tracks on a pop record can sometimes be a sign of flagging inspiration, but this one is interesting in its own right.
The final track, “This Ain’t for Everyone”, is a slow wistful number with a rock-operatic build. It closes the EP with a stylish flourish. Pas/Cal may declare themselves not for everyone, but they’re definitely for me. Here’s hoping for a full-length that lives up to The Handbag Memoirs’ promise.