Paloalto: Heroes and Villains

[30 September 2003]

By Devon Powers

The Future According to Paloalto

I think sometimes as music reviewers, we don’t think about how hard it is to be in a band. You have to find similarly minded, dedicated artists, and even when you do, there’ll be inevitable arguments over creativity, direction, and the scope of your work. You struggle to define yourself, make a sound, get heard, and garner fans, make a living, make a future. If you’re lucky to do these things and develop a name for yourself, you’re then a slave to image makers, publicists, and finally reviewers who will reduce what you do to catch phrases, or comparisons, or insults.

And I can already hear the critics taking potshots at Paloalto. The advocates will surely find reductionist ways to catalog their sound (“as if Thom Yorke fronted a grounded melodic rock outfit”, “an American take on the British guitar-driven pop so popular pre-Strokes”); the naysayers will retaliate with their own biting write-offs (“derivative”, “standard”, “safe”). Of course, even as I lambaste these tacks, I chose the ones I did in part because they could be considered accurate. But accurate doesn’t connote adequate—in this case or ever. Beyond the fact that there’s something unutterable about the experience of music in general, no artist deserves to have his/her creativity simply cast as the sum of parts and pieces past. Isn’t the great thing about rock that, as much as it owes to history, it also defiantly charges toward the future?

So what kind of future does Paloalto write? Most definitely, one in which melody can be strong but also sensitive, dark without demise. Theirs are songs that expand sound in simple ways, forging catchy melodies that do not forsake sonic richness. The sophomore release from the Los Angeles-based foursome, Heroes and Villains, may offer few tricks or lessons, but nonetheless it is worth more than a casual listen.

The first song, “The World Outside”, has an opening that is pretty, diminutive and sad, briefly building to something larger before dropping down again. James Grunder’s voice has a fragile strength, quaking with emotional believability, and it blends well with both the delicate and more forceful elements of their sound. Following “The World Outside” is a slightly faster number, Fade Out/In” (though it should be noted that nothing on this album is all that slow or all that fast). Again, it works on the premise of explosively big and feebly small, with steady and ominous baselines and somber minor tonality.

Overall, Paloalto are immediately accessible—with clean guitars, hummable melodies, straightforward, usually 4/4, verse-chorus-verse format—but that doesn’t render what they do boring. Instead, it’s as if their mission was to toy with the law of averages, creating an album that plays on themes which orbit around a strong nucleus of vision. But this does mean that, as the album progresses, songs have trouble coming off as distinct. Again, it’s not repetitiveness so much as it is extreme mellowness. This is the album you want to listen to when you want to get lost in your thoughts. It’s the album for serious conversations and restless sleep.

Paloalto should get credit for trying to take their listeners someplace, even if the path there isn’t found so much by directive as it is by wandering. The future according to Paloalto is not one marked by devastating setbacks and stunning victories, but instead a less dramatic, less painful turning of the seasons. Sometimes, the future just happens.

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