Pinback: Information Retrieved

For an album of such wide-open sounds and ideas, Information Received has a true knack for living in, and succeeding on, the smallest of details.


Information Retrieved

US Release: 2012-10-16
UK Release: 2012-10-22
Label: Temporary Residence

Pinback is either the quietest rock band working, or the loudest pristine pop band working. Whichever it is, the fact that Rob Crow and Zach Smith derive so much muscle and power from so little reliance on volume has always been remarkable, and that amazing restraint has reached an impressive new peak on Information Retrieved. As the band's albums get more ornate, or rather more glossy in their texturing, it'd be easy for them to fall into either toothless sheen or blaring day-glo decibels. On the new album, they do neither. Instead, they continue the slow growth of their sound, but this time it's just a little different.

It's a record that will sound at first to fans like another Pinback record, which is nothing to slouch at. But it will sound like the band's trademark beauty complete with vocal harmonies, Crow's clean guitar riffs, Smith's brilliantly lean bass, those ornate arrangements. Information Retrieved, though, doesn't just build on its predecessor, 2007's Autumn of the Seraph, but instead it feels like a summation of their entire career. It's got the polish of later records with the haunting yet bittersweet mood of classics like Blue Screen Life.

This is also an album that deals pretty heavily in atmosphere, and not just sonically. Thematically, the album is one troubled by barely hidden demons, by miasmic worry, by mistrust and isolation, but it is also one bolstered by hope, by the grey sunlight hiding behind thick cloud banks. Abstractions are everywhere here. On impressive opener "Commit to Memory", Crow keens that "soon all you'll have is your memory / and then you won't even have that memory." Even the physical elements, such as "frosted glasses cracking" – in either celebration or destruction, or both – feels like their dissipating into the atmosphere. On "Glide", the atmosphere goes from a place to project and lose thought and becomes something downright detrimental. "There's no oxygen," Crow insists, "in this air." Meanwhile, he also sings about keeping inner monsters at bay. There are other atmospheres here, most notably on "Drawstrings" where headphones provide the space around the body where thoughts go.

This struggle between the inner and outer, both abstract but somehow very much blood-and-bone real and powerful, is at the heart of Information Retrieved's tension. Despite the cold calculation of the title, this is a deeply felt record, one that digs into feelings that seem both unexplained and unnamed and yet terribly specific. But rather than succumb to these fears and tensions, this is not some sad-bastard record. Instead, it's a record that takes two paths at once. Lyrically, Crow both quietly surges with resilience – "I might fall, I might breakdown," he says on "Drawstring", though the lean guitar beat says he won't – and a hard-earned frustration. "Diminished" is the band's most expansive statement on the record, a slow building, piano-heavy ballad fit in between all these mid-tempo rockers. It builds to an impressive crescendo where Crow's usually hushed voiced busts open on top of crashing drums and Smith's rumbling bass and his own guitar theatrics. "Shouldn't be so hard to have a nice day," he insists, the mounting strain of the song finally pouring out. The line before found him trudging through snow, and you can feel both the exhaustion and the breaking free in the song's climax.

Pinback raises questions about the inner and outer space, and sort of blurs the line between the two, showing the ways in which we – through words, thoughts, music, distractions – contribute to our own murky atmospheres, how we cloud our own vision. And yet it still trudges forward in determination. Despite the suggestion to "take your pills" and the worry you'll "look like such a dick sometimes", "True North" is about trying to find your way forward. It's a difficult path here, over a pulsing stomp of a beat, made both sinister and clear-eyed with purpose by low strings and palm-muted riffs, and it sees us "chasing death" and "changing the time zones, confusing the true north." Yet, Pinback, here and elsewhere in the album, seeks for a point of reference, a lighthouse in the fog, that one thing that doesn't necessarily save us but helps us keep our bearings. In the end, though, Information Retrieved is not about finding land in a fog bank, its changing the pressure to make the fog dissipate.

The bittersweet tales – full of equal parts honest anger and cautious optimism – do much of the work here, but in the end it is music itself that seems to rise above the fray. It may bed down in its own mid-tempo a bit, which makes "Diminished" and the off-kilter "Denslow, You Idiot!" welcome shifts in the sonic landscape of the album, but overall this is a deft balancing of myriad textures. The warm pianos and ringing chill of guitar on "Sediment", the barely there reggae chug behind "A Request", the quiet keyboard that shadows the vocals in "Sherman" – each moment makes these carefully built songs surprising and, as a result, more lasting. For an album of such wide-open sounds and ideas, Information Retrieved has a true knack for living in, and succeeding on, the smallest of details. These are the flashlights in the dark, the things that pull us through the confusion, and lure us back into again and again.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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