Pit Er Pat: High Time

[15 December 2008]

By Zach Schonfeld

There is nothing immediately striking about this Chicago-based trio. They do, after all, call themselves Pit Er Pat, not Bang Bang Smash. Dub and reggae seep into the rhythm on High Time, their third full-length record; trip hop timbres inform the instrumentation more often than not. And yet the song structures—those swirling, ebbing, flowing grooves—recall more the fuzzy, hypnotic drones of `70s krautrock. And the only constant amidst the fearlessly expanded, if not oddly antique, instrumental choices (the press release lists kalimba, bobo balaphone, Burmese temple gongs, agogo bells, anandolohori, cuíca, timbale, conga, vibraslap, chimes, claps, and melodica) is Fay Davis-Jeffers’s darkly ambient voice. These songs are growers first and foremost, served most satisfyingly by extended headphone listens, not haphazard visits on the iPod shuffle. And yet a few missteps are best avoided altogether.

The intro of sorts—cryptically titled by a series of hieroglyphic symbols that will not, I think, translate into html—comes and goes without leaving much of an imprint: ominously chanted numbers here, some aimlessly strummed jazz guitar there, waves of tribal percussion. The point, rather, is to introduce a mood, to effect a transition into Pit Er Pat’s quietly seductive soundscapes. And transition it does, into the ticks, bleeps, gurgles, and wind-up sounds that usher in “Evacuation Day”. Like painting a picture with sound on the blank canvas that is silence, the opening recalls Spiritualized’s “I Think I’m In Love”. It is a slow-burning trip—the clean guitar a perfect complement to Davis-Jeffers’s exotic vocal melody, the mix cluttered with percussion, both live and electronic, ringing synth effects, even a Brazilian cuíca—until it finally reaches chaos, a powerful collapse as captivating as the intro. It is also, at nearly seven minutes, the album’s longest piece, and demonstrates the striking intensity of which Pit Er Pat are capable.

Comparable in effect, “Omen” and “Copper Pennies” are similar highlights. The former seeks catharsis in a circular guitar riff, both mesmerizing in its repetition and mocking in its simplicity. The singer’s voice, smoky and smooth (think Portishead’s Beth Gibbons), weaves through the mix with a cadence at once immediate and timeless. The lyrics here, though certainly abstruse, first draw attention to themselves: “Take off all your clothes / Cut open your chest / Take me with you through a hole in the wall / To another world with few words / Where promises can’t be broken”. On this unsettling request and steady groove the song remains for over five minutes; patience is a virtue here. “Copper Pennies” is just as odd, its eerie vocal harmonies slow to crawl from a shell of Nigel Godrich-esque atmospherics, off-kilter drum patterns, and bizarre cackling sound effects—and slower still to morph into an instrumental deconstruction à la Can circa Future Days.

But “Copper Pennie” is a transition as well: I hear in the album’s latter half a sincere, though painfully self-conscious desire to explore songs more visceral, more immediate, and unfortunately, more jarring. There is “The Cairo Shuffle”, a frustratingly unmelodic, proggy ode to Mexico, driven by endlessly cycling angular guitar lines and drum syncopations too awkward to click. “Creation Stepper” attempts clumsily to build an instrumental from tuneless balaphone (correct me?) noodling, but “Trod-A-Long” is even worse, perhaps this group’s weakest moment yet, in which grating synth blasts and electro elements clang, gurgle, and collide uselessly atop a harsh Latin-tinged rhythm.

And yet the best is still to come. A conclusion, both triumphant and gorgeously meaningless, arrives in “The Good Morning Song”: wordless moaning graces an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink drone. Yes, a true drone, formless, hypnotic, and mesmerizing—like Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” by way of Steve Reich. The lesson is by this point clear: that Pit Er Pat’s somewhat jumbled post-genre vision works best when they let it flow, as on this final track. Forget the irritating electro clutter, scale back the prog-heavy drums, and embrace the groove. Not the way Phish grooves, but groove in the purest sense of the word, as defined by Can, Faust, and even ‘90s trip hop.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/66440-pit-er-pat-high-time/