The Panda Band: This Vital Chapter

[18 October 2006]

By Dan Raper

What is it about Perth? There must be something in the water, and I’m surely not the first to point it out, that turns out bands that fill endless space with gorgeous melody. From Jebediah to the Panics to the Sleepy Jackson to, now, the Panda Band, some common sensibility of isolation or proportion informs the musicians of Perth equally. This newest entrant to the club is not one to be missed.

The Panda Band have been working on their debut for a while. Their breakout single, “Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town”, was played and played to death on the radio in Australia all last year; follow-up “Eyelashes” received a similar treatment. Fast forward over a year, and we finally get to hear a full-length. This Vital Chapter (subtitled We’re Almost Not Even Here) is a huge-hearted, trippy adventure through spaced-out cacophony and endless melody; it’s addictive, derivative, and (did I mention?) immensely enjoyable.

The versions of the two previously-released singles that find their way onto This Vital Chapter are substantially different. Tightened and cleaned up, what the band sacrifices of the happy-go-lucky, garage-recorded feel they make up for with a crystallized structure, starkly abrupt section changes, and joyously audible cacophony. “Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town” features a toy-brass section full of dissonant, muted trumpet lines and spinning-out-of-control orchestration; the effect is to highlight the sadness of this place (Panda Band’s Perth), where you “crash your cool cars kid, watch the citizens all gather round”. If you haven’t heard it, you must listen to this song: it’s an unstoppable anthem for anyone who’s ever felt too big to be contained by their home town. And “Eyelashes” is different from the single, too; lusher and more full-sounding, the tempo’s also quicker: the band marches straight on, through the song’s weird back-masking section and occasional blasts of atonality to the glorious coda…

…A coda which, others have pointed out, sounds exactly like “Float On” by Modest Mouse. So here’s the thing: “Eyelashes” isn’t a particularly original-sounding song, and neither are most of the tunes on the album. The singer, Damian Crosbie, has Luke Steele’s phrasing and his slurred intonation (listen for it on the phrase “Lord have you been looking down on me” on “Eyelashes”), but as he moves higher in his register his voice thins out and obtains a purer quality. And the music obviously owes a lot to the Flaming Lips, with its electronic chirps and acid-rock trips; to the Sleepy Jackson, with its swirling, layered harmonies and edging alt-country and acid; and the big one that started it all, Sgt. Peppers (of course).

What concentrating on this aspect of the group’s sound misses, though, is that this 12-song collection contains an inordinate number of really great songs. From the sped-up Beatles hurdy-gurdy waltz of “Spanish Bride” to the relaxed acid-country of “Lovely Shoulders” to “Musical Chairs”’ Brian Wilson harmonies and stomping chorus, out-of-tune guitars build glorious, chaotic rackets or moments of serene beauty. Katy Steele, singer for quality Perth pop outfit Little Birdy (and Luke’s sister), contributes to two songs that frame the disc’s second half; together with “Ghosts Have the Best Time”, these songs represents a solid unit that changes the tenor of the second “side” of the CD.

Following Franz Ferdinand’s creative lead, the Panda Band are unafraid to abruptly shift gears at any point within a song, moving into a coda entirely unrelated to the rest of the material, or extending a bridge past what you might expect. While these changes may be too abrupt for some, it gives the band’s work a nimble unpredictability that rewards repeat listens.

This Vital Chapter ploughs through its weaknesses with a confidence and aplomb that announces a new entrant to indie rock that is well worth a listen. Australian bands seem to battle labels of derivation on a regular basis, but unlike Wolfmother or Jet, the Panda Band are no one-trick homage; their songs are too good for that. If you can set musical snobbery to one side, you’ll be glad you gave the Panda Band a chance.

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