Most reviews of previous Pinback records have a consistent, near unanimous theme. Namely, sleep and dreams. If you listen to “Loro”, for example (from their eponymous 1998 debut), with its lovely lilting summer hammock sway, it’s not hard to see why. Or “Tripoli” from the same album, for that matter. And yet, on closer inspection, their dreamy (San Diego) California sound was always a little at odds with the apparent underlying meanings of their songs. They may have sung about water a lot, but it’s more often the brackish water of the drowning kind (”. . . why does it taste like salt water inside of my mouth?”) than it is the life-sustaining kind. Or it’s other, darker liquid (“spilling blood so fast I can’t keep up much more”, both snippets from “Boo” off Blue Screen Life). Even the softly repetitive “4,9,5,3,1” of “Loro” is allegedly code for “d,i,e,c,a”, or “die California”.
We really ought to have been paying closer attention; after all, there is more than a hint in the band’s very name, surely an exhortation for us to pin back our ears, no? In other words, to stop dreaming in spite of the drowsy lull and dangerous pull of their sonic undertow.
Well, on Offcell, this ambiguity is far less stark. As if in exasperation, the band (Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV) have compromised the sweeter elements of their sound somewhat; perhaps in order to confront us with the disquieting visions we should have seen all along. Not that they are completely absent, by any stretch. Those gentle harmonies and mellifluous hooks are still present, soothing and beautiful as before. But often, unexpectedly, near dance-grooves and flashes of rockier discordance reflect from something shard-like and broken within. And natural elements like water have been supplanted by less organic and more overtly threatening ones.
“Microtonic Wave” may open with familiar tinkling piano-and-chimes precipitation and subtle rhythmic guitar, but we soon find ourselves in a decidedly artificial and sterile environment nonetheless. What follows sounds like the imminent invasion of something robotic and alien. The music is somehow bigger than previous Pinback offerings, an increasingly busy and inventive blend of pop, post-rock, laptop and emo. Watery metaphors have given way to technological ones (analog to digital?), those Simon and Garfunkel harmonies intoning stuff about cauterizing scars and receiving transmissions instead of crossing bridges over troubled water or hearing the sounds of silence. Or the sounds between the tones (literally, “microtonic”), perhaps. The human/inhuman background chatter and final chant as the song fades out is both nervous and nerveless.
“Victorius D” opens with a gorgeous guitar/bass hook that folds itself into a tumbling drum beat, oscillating with the simple, gentle “I follow you” refrain, while “angels suffer” and “we breathe from the same mouth”. The complex interplay of the high/low sung harmonies, interweaving between the guitar and bass, constantly detaching and reattaching, mimic the overall sense of obsessive-compulsive restlessness. This intensity builds and builds only to stop just short of any release, any denouement. Perhaps that is a good thing, however.
An increasingly staccato picked rhythm informs the title song, demonstrating a willingness to explore more inventive and propulsive beats. The voices themselves, in fact, are part of this undulating frequency, this fluctuating resonance. It is a near perfect marriage of rhythm and melody, occasionally punctured by short, harsh, almost math-rocky guitar interludes, and eerily quiet proclamations like “it’s so hard to see straight sometimes”. A clanky, vast sound like automatons inside an aircraft hangar bridges “Offcell” with the frankly surprising “B”. Ambitious and strange, this latter song is an anomaly. The by-now familiar techno (phobia versus philia) tension finds expression in lines like “stereo hum, audio drone . . . buzzing in my head and it won’t turn off” while angular, almost jazz-prog riffs chatter hyperactively behind an accelerating vocal melody that threatens to turn into Supertramp’s “Logical Song”. And to cap it all, a series of power chords finally collapses into the kinds of synth sounds last heard on Who’s Next? If that all sounds too much, it probably is. Full marks for ambition and courage, but the seams are really too apparent here, and the clash of cultures is ultimately distracting.
Which makes the closer “Grey - Machine” (spelled the English/Canadian way for some reason) an even more welcome relief. The frantic jumble of “B” gives way to a more patient and circumspect sound initially bordered by large booming drums and moaning cellos. Becoming gradually jauntier as it takes its sweet time trawling pop’s tawdry golden decades (‘60s onwards) for silvery texture and shadowy mood, this 11-minute dark pop song is both mellow and edgy. Edgy as in anxiety-producing, that is. The sounds themselves are rich and warm, and—at first—references to swimming and reflections in the sky and the “simple pleasures nature gave” all seem very consistent and coherent. But just as a more complex rhythm appears to have given birth to itself unnoticed beneath our tapping feet, our edges of perception begin to register increasing alarm as lyrical fragments like “curled in a ball”, “face in the dirt” and “out of reach . . . out of touch” resolve themselves into the crawling paralyzed dread of “I’m letting go / It’s scaring me”, and worse: “Let go / you scare me” [emphasis added]. Suddenly, those earlier “reflections” don’t seem so innocent. Like the realization of ultimate human loneliness—alone-ness—this creeping alarm of a song finally disintegrates into the heavy, hollow sounds of a bustling room while a lone piano tinkles and a dispirited processed voice barely whispers the EP’s last lines: “get me out of here please”.
For all its innovation, muted flashes of beauty, and counterintuitive layers, Offcell is still recognizably Pinback, but fans of the band will also realize immediately that there will be no going back to the floating-in-ocean-swells of previous efforts. Since such summer breeze romanticism was an illusion anyway, this new congruency will take the band into some interesting places. A full length in 2004 will be the first of those interesting places.