[12 March 2014]
The Pack AD are a Vancouver two-piece garage rock outfit (think White Stripes, Black Keys, etc) comprised of singer-guitarist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller. Since 2008’s debut Tintype, the pair have been unleashing no-holds-barred albums featuring plenty of riffage and pounding rhythms, coupled with Black’s strong-yet-vulnerable vocals. 2011’s Unpersons was regarded by many fans as a career highlight. Now the duo is back, teamed up with producer Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Electric Six) for its fifth full-length, Do Not Engage. The verdict? Great album, folks. Fans of no-nonsense rock-and-roll free of posing and pretension should run out right now and give this album a listen.
The proceedings start promisingly with the thumping drums and oozing, layered distortion of “Airborne”, a tune that straddles the tension between Black’s spaced-out vocals and the blankets of instrumental anxiety rumbling underneath. It’s a strong opening and one that promises much more to come. Happily, the album delivers.
Even better, the delivery doesn’t take long to arrive. “Big Shot” and “Animal” both see the vocals switching from dreamy sweetness to falling-off-the-chair intensity, while the drums bash away and guitar chords are slammed down with all the subtlety of industrial construction machinery. (Just to be clear: this is a good thing.)
Standout track “Battering Ram” shows up roughly halfway through, the tentpole tune to the album as a whole and one which was pre-released on 2013 EP Some Sssongs. This is a great tune, encapsulating the duo’s inventiveness and range in one go, from charging straightforward rockage to softer moments, when Black’s voice nearly quivers with vulnerability—just before she again chews your face off. Miller is in fine form as well, deftly switching rhythms and percussive approach from verse to verse, from chorus to bridge.
Highlight or no, the album is still far from over, and there are strong songs in plenty on the back half. “Rocket” lurches along nicely in a quiet-loud-quiet groove with a bit of blues thrown in. (There’s not much blues influence on the album as a whole, which might disappoint some longtime fans, but the band have enough other tricks on hand to keep this from being much of a detriment). Black’s voice is in fine form here as well, warbling through the noise, nearly getting drowned out at times but always breaking through to seize command.
Finally, album closer “Needles” quiets the proceedings enough for Black to sing with just a strummed guitar as accompaniment. It’s a sweet way to wrap up the album, though the song’s bittersweet tone is apt to leave listeners feeling wistful—for what exactly, they may not know.
The album isn’t flawless; a few songs are less memorable than others. For my money, “Creepin’ Jenny” falls flat, despite its great title. Moreover, there is a fuzziness overlying the whole record that may not be to everyone’s taste. The guitar tone is muted and muddy, and the vocals are swathed in thick blankets of reverb. Compared to some of the band’s earlier offerings, the sound is less sharp-edged; at times the whole album seems to have been doused in codeine. The overall effect is successful, but again, it’s different enough that long-term fans might scratch their heads.
No matter. Do Not Engage is a strong album and a worthy addition to the Pack AD’s already impressive list of mini-epics. With Black and Miller out there making a joyful (sometimes) noise, it’s safe to say that rock-and-roll is, indeed, here to stay. For a while anyway.