Brice Randall Bickford's second solo album is the finest of his long musical career. PARO relies on carefully built textures that grow more fascinating with each listen.
Brice Randall Bickford once operated under the Strugglers moniker, released four fine albums and touring all over before releasing his first album under his own name in 2011. PARO is Bickford's sophomore solo record, but you can feel the seasoned hand of a long-time working musician in the distant echoes of the Strugglers material as well as his last record. Yet at the same time, PARO sounds nothing like anything Bickford has done before. Bickford presents an impressive, subtle, and singular sound as he cycles through eight songs about characters carefully etched by Bickford who are often stuck at desperate turning points or else confronting issues from their past.
Considering Bickford's beautiful lyrics throughout PARO, it's somewhat surprising that the record starts with "Fatal Vision", a song about a struggling screenwriter. This character is on the outside looking in, a "guard at the gatehouse / seventeen hours a day" just trying to find a way in. This is a character losing hope by degrees, but still fighting for a dream. He can feel the weight of it all, how "hard [he] pressed / the gravel underneath [his] feet back then." Oddly enough, this person so keen to tell their story on screen sort of sets the story of this record in motion, introducing themes and images that will recur throughout the rest of the record.
People are often in motion in one way or another. "Fatal Vision" ponders the gravel as someone walks. "Desert Orchards" gets lost in the squeal of bus brakes as the narrator laments "seems like all I've ever done is look out on ruined landscapes". On "Heels on the Street" finds travel merely through sitting in front of the mirror, as a woman travels through the history of women in her family as she noticed her hair going white. "Barricades (Way Home)" seems both literal and metaphorical when it talks about "one long conversation about how we should go / and how we'll make it home". The sense of movement in these songs also reveals a desire for progress, both individual and widespread. "Paro" is taken from a common Latin American term meaning "Labor Strike", and labor weighs heavily on this record. The screenwriter crumbling under the pressure to tell a story, each word on the page like a shovel blade into hard earth. "The First Grain" recounts the struggle of a long-time family farm fighting to be "more than sustainable".
Throughout the record, you can feel work passed down through generations, and you can find characters divorced from work and thus themselves, or fighting for more. If that sounds bleak or defeating, there's often an exhausted fight left in these people. These aren't tales of giving up; they're tales of having had enough, of wanting, needing, even deserving more. Behind Bickford's sweet vocals and scalpel-sharp lyrics, the music itself hints at the hope for something different. With the Strugglers, country always floated on the edges of Bickford's songs. On PARO, Bickford and his fellow musicians don't borrow from genres so much as they turn them inside out. "Desert Orchard" should be a country-rock stomper, but the pulled-off low notes and guitar fills don't twang. They push past dust into something more ethereal, more astral, as if the music provides the means for rising above the "ruined landscape". "Civilized Death" is a crunchier turn, a song that could be muscled power-pop but instead sounds more scraped out and desperately lean. The drums snap and rumble with a bone-dry simplicity, and the angular guitars come off as sinewy, wiry, and confrontational. "Heels on the Street" glides along on a soft acoustic strum, but the layers of guitar over it owe more to the New Romantics than the high lonesome. The album inverts sounds at every turn. Though we get pedal steel here, it sounds like a fresh take on the instrument. Bickford isn't content to let the instrument collect dust, and instead uses it to melt riffs into new, fascinating shapes.
If the lyrics are about what brought these people here, the music is about the possibilities of what's next. With help from keyboardist Alex Lazara and Polvo's Ash Bowie on guitar, Bickford has created a series of haunting yet faintly hopeful songs on PARO, a cycle of songs that seem to exist at the hinge between what has gone wrong and what will be done to fix it, what will be done to persevere. It's an impressive album on a storytelling front, but it's also one of the more impressive guitar records to come out this year. Where other guitar albums might rely on volume and towering solos, PARO relies on carefully built textures that grow more complicated and fascinating with each listen. PARO is about searching for yourself in meaningful work or divorcing yourself from that which drags you down. In putting his own hard work into this record, Brice Randall Bickford isn't searching like these characters. He's struck on something: a vital sound, a new set of textures, great lyrical details, and, as a result, the finest album of his career.