The Pica Beats work sitar, oboes, and other unusual instruments into their songs, but the album only really takes off when they use these instruments in traditional pop frameworks.
The Pica Beats are the brainchild of frontman/songwriter/almost-everything-else Ryan Barrett and drummer Colin English. Beating Back the Claws of the Cold is a really interesting album that has some triumphant moments, but almost as many pedestrian ones. Barrett plays guitar and various synths, but also uses sitar and bin (better known as the instrument snake-charmers play). He seems to have a penchant for working these unusual timbres into delicate, fragile songs. It's a bit odd, then, that the less delicate songs are the ones that seem to work best.
The album opens with "Poor Old Ra", a lament to Ra and the rest of the pantheon of Egyptian Gods. A catchy acoustic guitar line is joined by soft hand drums, and then an oboe melody starts, soon joined by a second oboe harmonizing. Barrett's reedy voice, sounding something like Interpol's Paul Banks as interpreted by the Decemberists' Colin Meloy, shows up and is quickly accompanied by Ashlee Hunter (also handling oboe duties), making this a full-blown duet. The interplay between the two voices and oboes with the underlying acoustic guitar make "Poor Old Ra" a very strong start, but Barrett has trouble following it up. "Martine, as Heavy Lifter", is a mid-tempo instrumental featuring the sitar and bin heavily. It's a nice showcase for the two instruments, but not a great tune. "Summer Cutting Kale" uses a low guitar riff and synth flutes, and is a solid song. But the arrangement isn't nearly as interesting, and the song just sort of floats along without much momentum.
It's not until the upbeat pop of the fourth track, "Shrinking Violets", that Barrett's knack for melody and arranging really resurface. He again uses female backing vocals, this time by Christina Antipa, as a counterpoint to his own voice, to great effect. Antipa's soft harmonizing works well in the verses, but it's her repeated echo of "they've had enough" that really sticks and gives the song its hook. The album then backs off again, slowing things down for a fleeting instrumental and the languid title track. The dark "Hope, Was Not a Smith Family Tradition" benefits from the subject matter of the story of a really dysfunctional family, and also its bracing opening lyrics, "Hope, was not a Smith family tradition / Neither was coming home sober with your paycheck still intact." Barrett's solo singing works very well in this mostly acoustic storytelling mode, and his use of the oboe again gives the song a little extra punch.
"Hikkimori and the Rental Sisters" uses a sitar riff effectively at the beginning, but Barrett lets it disappear until near the end in favor of a limp vocal melody that quickly gets repetitive. "Shallow Dive" is another song that benefits from a great first line, "Son you'll have to grow thicker skin / before you turn amphibian". The lyrics, reflecting on death and life in the human world and plant and animal kingdoms, keep the song compelling, even without a great melodic hook. The album ends on another sort of blah note, though, as "Territoire" limps along, only coming to life during its brief full-ensemble sections that bring together most of the instruments used throughout the album at once.
Beating Back the Claws of the Cold has enough highlights to keep things enticing, and Ryan Barrett certainly shows hints of great potential as a songwriter and particularly as an arranger. But this is one instance where genre-hopping and stylistic shifts may hurt a band more than help it. The more outside the box Barrett gets, the less enticing his songs become. When he sticks to more traditional pop songwriting and really concentrates on creative instrumentation and sonic palette within that framework, the album takes off.