Even if you’re already familiar with the Zincs, there is no way to understand their latest, Black Pompadour, after one or even several listens, unless you have the volume turned way up. I made that mistake, and couldn’t distinguish most of the record from its predecessor, 2005’s Dimmer. At first I chalked that up to the fact that prior to Dimmer, the Zincs had not been much of a touring band. Occasional shows with rotating line-ups brought the home-recorded wonders of Moth and Marriage to the stage, but a road-tested group never got the chance to really tighten up on Jim Elkington’s wry, energetic, melodic pop songs. Not so anymore; backed by the same steady clutch of Chicagoans for the past couple of years, the Zincs’ focused chemistry is on full display, a hybrid of jazz-tinged Midwestern post-rock and the styles of experimental sophisticate songsters like John Cale and Leonard Cohen. So it stands to reason that this new set of songs would seek to be eminently stage-worthy and –ready.
With much of Pompadour following the model of Dimmer’s sprightly “Moment Is Now!”, the album is a brisk exercise in highly literate, cosmopolitan rock, the bright, elastic energy of the band’s performances counterbalanced by Elkington’s dry, laconic vocal delivery. On the opener, “Head East, Kaspar”, snippets of language distinguish themselves out of Elkington’s static timbre, depictions of two companions traveling a bleak landscape through a wide assortment of apocalyptic weather phenomena—at least I think. Interpreting the lyrics of most bands is a crapshoot; with the Zincs, that crapshoot feels almost by design. It’s not that it’s impossible to make out what Elkington is singing, though it’s somewhat challenging given the tight melodic range he allows himself; it’s that the stories told in songs like “Kaspar” and “The Mogul’s Wives” are so intricate and unique to Elkington’s own humor and sensibility, they take longer to translate to the listener than most. And though it’s ultimately rewarding to live with songs long enough for them to unfold their secrets, it’s a good thing Black Pompadour’s main focus is more visceral than literary.
The best example of this happens to be the album’s hands-down best song, “Burdensome Son”. I’ve spent zero time through scores of listens trying to decipher a single phrase or word, and have remained thoroughly transfixed and entertained by the shifting rhythms of drummer Jason Toth and bassist Nick Macri, and Nathaniel Braddock’s swirling and melodic guitar lines. I’m sure that once I settle down and pay close attention to the words it’ll be interesting work, but for now my reaction is purely instinctual; the song makes my insides dance even while I’m sitting still, as all good rock music should. The closer, “Rich Libertines”, is another gem, with all players disguising and subverting its 4/4 signature to create a shimmering, invigorating backdrop for Elkington’s voice to loll about (the last minute of the song positively sparkles). “You breathe your last breath / As the barnacles suck on your eyes / As no one will sink quite as fast as a rich libertine,” he sings with measured condemnation, not quite sneering, but definitely disapproving.
Short-sighted and dim-witted dilettantes and social climbers are consistently a target of Zincs songs, if I were forced to pick out a theme. But really everyone’s deserving of an acerbic quip or bracing dose of reality. “Hamstrung and Juvenile” details the struggles of being single (I know this because someone at Thrill Jockey already sussed it out for me) over a propulsive stomp, and features (as do two other Pompadour tracks) backing by the wonderful Edith Frost, who adds a welcome second vocal dimension. The laid-back “Lost Solid Colours” darkly, comically, adopts the smarminess embodied by the popular entertainers who infect our collective cultural consciousness—“I’m so good looking / I’m going to tell you what you’re all about / Just a thin towel / Keeps moving your mess around”—making it one of the more perplexing, layered ballads you’re likely to hear for a while. It’s also a clear departure from past Zincs songs, putting to rest my initial response to Black Pompadour as merely Dimmer redux. There’s more under the pleasant surfaces of these songs than first meets the ears, more subtly inventive textures than blatant quirks: evidence that the Zincs are indeed on the move.