This record is a simpler counterpoint to the intricacies of Pinback, though the melodic pleasures are awfully similar. But its approachability is also what holds it back a bit.
There's something approachable, even tossed off, about Rob Crow's work outside of Pinback. From the ramshackle recordings with his side project, Thingy, to the awkward candid photo and block letters that adorned the cover of his last solo record, 2007's Living Well, to the stick figure and hand-written scribble on the cover of the new album, He Thinks He's People, Crow's solo outings offer a simpler counterpoint to the intricacies of Pinback, though the melodic pleasures are awfully similar.
In some ways, the simplicity of the artwork on these releases, and on He Thinks He's People in particular, feels like it bleeds over into the music. The layers aren't quite as thick as Crow delivers with his band, the songs more straightforward and clean. The vocals may still pile up, but mostly this feels stripped down. Of course, to say that the songs are tossed off is to ignore the tight, often intricate, melodies that allow these compositions to exist in these less adorned states. The scribbles on the cover are artifice, meant to imply this record is a casual affair. The record itself, however, is another solid set of pop tunes from a guy who never seems to run out of them.
One thing his solo work does have in common with his Pinback records is that Crow manages a rock power without rock volume. "Sophistructure", the album's first song, builds on a tangle of circular guitar riffs over a keyboard rundown. The chorus crashes with power chords, surely, but Crow's voice is a honeyed whisper when he insists, "They should do something about you". It's a churning, powerful song, but it works on restraint, not decibels. Its tight tense-and-release construct sets up the more spacious and moody "Scalped" quite well. Crow's voice drops to a sinister croon in the verses, but he belts its out on the chorus here. "How much did you pay? / What's your soul worth now?", he demands to know, here more strident than dismissive. The record spends a lot of time between these two poles, dismissal and heartfelt disappointment.
But as dark as Crow may get, the songs never lose their bright propulsion. "Prepared to Be Mined" is as charging a rock song as you'll hear this fall, even though it's built on Crow's unassuming voice and an acoustic riff. "I'd Like to Be There" is a half-joking condemnation of people who talk on their phones at the movies or on the highway. So it's funny, and the guitars ring out, even as he sings how he'd "like to be there when they staple shut your tongue." It does get darker in other places, like the bitter "So Way", but even as the guitars wind in minor chord riffs, the drums push everything forward, and Crow's layered vocals soar in their humble way. "Pat's Crabs" is just a minute-long acoustic number in the middle of the record, yet it has all the power and tension of the most built-up tune on the album.
So the songs have the same surprising charms we expect from Crow's other work, even as they hit you as basic pop pleasures. He tries out sounds you don't expect from him here, and sometimes it works -- as on the spacey keys of "Purpose" -- while other times it doesn't. The brief squall of electro-punk that is "Build" feels too strident next to these more subtle songs, while "Locking Seth Putnam in Hot Topic" doesn't quite work past playful filler, despite its funkier leanings.
Taken as a whole, He Thinks He's People is brief and often exciting. But its approachability is also what holds it back a bit. In one way, you have to approach it on its own terms, and this is a quick blast -- just over 33 minutes -- of catchy power-pop, equal parts bright hooks and deathly funny lines. But the tossed-off vibe of it all, even if the songs are carefully constructed, makes it feel a bit slight. That's not to say it's not good, because it is very good in some places, and it's nice to see Crow cut free of Pinback with another successful solo outing. But while Crow has delivered another set of punchy tunes, this record is still likely to wallow in the shadows of his "proper" band, for better or worse.