[12 December 2010]
Sisters follow in the line of noise-pop duos so successfully branded by No Age. The band consists of Aaron Pfannebecker on guitar and Matt Conboy on drums and keys. They also happen to be two members of the notorious Brooklyn DIY collective Death by Audio, which makes room for a basement-like aesthetic in an overwhelmingly smoothed over scene of cookie-cutter venues. Where No Age’s feedback squalls reference ‘80s LA skate punk, at first glance Sisters’ own fuzzy mess owes more to ‘90s bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. But upon repeat listens, the noise influence gives way to a significant emo background, betrayed mostly by Pfannebecker’s childish vocals and his fast-strumming, hard, melodic chord progressions.
The endearing thing about Sisters is their evident earnestness. Embedded right in Pfannebecker’s cracking voice is a clear enjoyment of doing what he’s doing. The chugging energy that feeds through the thickly distorted guitar and the swinging drums is hard to discount. However, it is harder to overcome the weakness of Pfannebecker’s voice. He can’t sing. He flits back and forth between chanting (or rather breathily whispering) and straining to form a melody. It’s a long established trend in indie music that singing acumen doesn’t really matter, but typically the excuse for this is a voice with significant character. J Mascis could devolve into an almost atonal squeal because he recuperated the emotional rawness evidenced by his weak voice with virtuosic guitar. Pfannebecker only has his enthusiasm going for him.
Live, Sisters have a certain rawness—or maybe it’s only loudness. The band experiments with pedals and loops; Pfannebecker plays out of two amps. They have an inside line on effects, thanks to their connections to Death by Audio. Yet the noise doesn’t come through on the album. Though the sound comes across as thick and robust, it has little texture. Besides the weakness of Pfannebecker’s voice is the fact that Sisters don’t typically hit upon infectious melodies (unlike a band like No Age). Most of the songs have very predictable chord progressions, referencing the gamut of ‘90s indie pop.
The big mistake on the record was to boost the vocals over everything else in the classically pop mix, especially when Pfannebecker cannot possibly carry a song with his voice alone. It really sounds like he is singing over the music, not as part of it. Even on the album highlight, “Here It Comes”, where the enthusiasm meets a convincing energy and loudness, especially in the trilling trebly guitar leads, Pfannebecker’s voice struggles to blend in. Since he doesn’t, the weak, pumped-up voice ends up condensing the guitars and drums and ultimately taming them. If the vocals were mixed into the mess of guitar and drums, the wall of noise would do a better job to make Sisters interesting. They need to wash everything over in the direction of drone—or find a better pop formula to form the basis of their songs.
Still, it’s hard not to find something to admire in these guys. They seem to love what they’re doing so much. Conboy pounds through the album energetically, and at times Pfannebecker finds really nice guitar interludes. But there are too many lagging parts. You can’t rely on sincerity alone, even if you have an admirable DIY ethos. The problem is the earnestness turns into that brand of precious childishness that pervades much of indie music now (not to speak of other areas of culture). On the opener, “Ghost”, the lyrics betray this twee sensibility: “Right from the start / a brand new color that covers the stars / images blur and we get lost.” That simulated sense of innocent wonder quickly gets on one’s nerves, especially when the childish delivery towers over everything else in the mix. Pfannebecker mimics the phrasing and perhaps even the sensibility of someone like Ride’s Mark Gardener, but Sisters fails to achieve the turbulent fusion of noise and pop that characterizes shoegazing.
Bands that develop out of the lineage of Sonic Youth – playing noisy songs still grounded in a pop sensibility – often cannot match the innovation of their progenitors. Mere noise does not make something avant-garde. It’s hard not to suspect that behind the excitement and distortion, Sisters is lacking, both in terms of songwriting and in terms of invention. It’s quite possible that they will develop their own take on noise pop that furthers the genre, but before they do this they’ll need to streamline their sound. They can’t merely be, as Pfannebecker sings in “Visions”, a “cardboard cutout with a halo on top”: just a sweet incarnation of what has come before.