[17 October 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Pinback is either the quietest rock band working, or the loudest pristine pop band working. Whichever it is, the fact that Rob Crow and Zach Smith derive so much muscle and power from so little reliance on volume has always been remarkable, and that amazing restraint has reached an impressive new peak on Information Retrieved. As the band’s albums get more ornate, or rather more glossy in their texturing, it’d be easy for them to fall into either toothless sheen or blaring day-glo decibels. On the new album, they do neither. Instead, they continue the slow growth of their sound, but this time it’s just a little different.
It’s a record that will sound at first to fans like another Pinback record, which is nothing to slouch at. But it will sound like the band’s trademark beauty complete with vocal harmonies, Crow’s clean guitar riffs, Smith’s brilliantly lean bass, those ornate arrangements. Information Retrieved, though, doesn’t just build on its predecessor, 2007’s Autumn of the Seraph, but instead it feels like a summation of their entire career. It’s got the polish of later records with the haunting yet bittersweet mood of classics like Blue Screen Life.
This is also an album that deals pretty heavily in atmosphere, and not just sonically. Thematically, the album is one troubled by barely hidden demons, by miasmic worry, by mistrust and isolation, but it is also one bolstered by hope, by the grey sunlight hiding behind thick cloud banks. Abstractions are everywhere here. On impressive opener “Commit to Memory”, Crow keens that “soon all you’ll have is your memory / and then you won’t even have that memory.” Even the physical elements, such as “frosted glasses cracking” – in either celebration or destruction, or both – feels like their dissipating into the atmosphere. On “Glide”, the atmosphere goes from a place to project and lose thought and becomes something downright detrimental. “There’s no oxygen,” Crow insists, “in this air.” Meanwhile, he also sings about keeping inner monsters at bay. There are other atmospheres here, most notably on “Drawstrings” where headphones provide the space around the body where thoughts go.
This struggle between the inner and outer, both abstract but somehow very much blood-and-bone real and powerful, is at the heart of Information Retrieved‘s tension. Despite the cold calculation of the title, this is a deeply felt record, one that digs into feelings that seem both unexplained and unnamed and yet terribly specific. But rather than succumb to these fears and tensions, this is not some sad-bastard record. Instead, it’s a record that takes two paths at once. Lyrically, Crow both quietly surges with resilience – “I might fall, I might breakdown,” he says on “Drawstring”, though the lean guitar beat says he won’t – and a hard-earned frustration. “Diminished” is the band’s most expansive statement on the record, a slow building, piano-heavy ballad fit in between all these mid-tempo rockers. It builds to an impressive crescendo where Crow’s usually hushed voiced busts open on top of crashing drums and Smith’s rumbling bass and his own guitar theatrics. “Shouldn’t be so hard to have a nice day,” he insists, the mounting strain of the song finally pouring out. The line before found him trudging through snow, and you can feel both the exhaustion and the breaking free in the song’s climax.
Pinback raises questions about the inner and outer space, and sort of blurs the line between the two, showing the ways in which we – through words, thoughts, music, distractions – contribute to our own murky atmospheres, how we cloud our own vision. And yet it still trudges forward in determination. Despite the suggestion to “take your pills” and the worry you’ll “look like such a dick sometimes”, “True North” is about trying to find your way forward. It’s a difficult path here, over a pulsing stomp of a beat, made both sinister and clear-eyed with purpose by low strings and palm-muted riffs, and it sees us “chasing death” and “changing the time zones, confusing the true north.” Yet, Pinback, here and elsewhere in the album, seeks for a point of reference, a lighthouse in the fog, that one thing that doesn’t necessarily save us but helps us keep our bearings. In the end, though, Information Retrieved is not about finding land in a fog bank, its changing the pressure to make the fog dissipate.
The bittersweet tales – full of equal parts honest anger and cautious optimism – do much of the work here, but in the end it is music itself that seems to rise above the fray. It may bed down in its own mid-tempo a bit, which makes “Diminished” and the off-kilter “Denslow, You Idiot!” welcome shifts in the sonic landscape of the album, but overall this is a deft balancing of myriad textures. The warm pianos and ringing chill of guitar on “Sediment”, the barely there reggae chug behind “A Request”, the quiet keyboard that shadows the vocals in “Sherman” – each moment makes these carefully built songs surprising and, as a result, more lasting. For an album of such wide-open sounds and ideas, Information Retrieved has a true knack for living in, and succeeding on, the smallest of details. These are the flashlights in the dark, the things that pull us through the confusion, and lure us back into again and again.