Halfway through their second release, Brooklyn-based Pale Horse and rider start to click and Moody Pike begins to resemble a singular piece of art rather than just another collection of sad-alt-core or whatever new moniker is being applied to country rock. Halfway through a given song, you might lose or gain interest depending -- a pedal steel redeems a clunky line, or that very same clunker threatens to undermine everything the song had going for it. The album is full of halves and dual personalities, contradictions and surprises. Moody Pike doesn't win over immediately, but keeps snuggling up to you like a wet dog until your defenses wear down, your sleeves and jeans sport damp patches, and the trivial cares of the day are shaken off like so many fine droplets.
Pale Horse and Rider began as the country project of Aarktica's Jon DeRosa. On Moody Pike, Mark Gartman (Rivulets) moves up from backup vocal/banjo duties to partnership status, splitting singing and songwriting duties. Aside from a three-song DeRosa marathon in the album's middle, the two pass the mic back and forth like an indie rock A Tribe Called Quest, highlighting the differences between the two writers. DeRosa is Q-Tip in this analogy; the project is his baby even if it's got two daddy's now. For better or worse, his songs drive Moody Pike and on the surface carry the most emotional weight. Gartman, in the Phife Dawg role, is no less important though -- it's ultimately his songs that provide ballast for some of the more melodramatic compositions and keep Moody Pike afloat.
"Stoned in the Evening" starts things off with a full band that includes Gerald Menke on pedal steel and Mike Pride on the drums. Menke is pushed forward in the mix (courtesy of Paul Oldham at the boards), as are the vocals, so the arrangements are looser than your typical strum along country fare. "Stoned" hops along pleasantly enough. There are ghosts that can be felt but not seen, eyes that can't be seen because the light is too dim, and of course: getting stoned. Most of the songs on Moody Pike reference drugs or alcohol in some way, DeRosa's in particular. His images blur together after awhile, foggy and tough to nail down. His songs are more outwardly emotional, less narrative than Gartman's. They generally deal with relationships from a first-person perspective. Herein lies the trap. DeRosa's vocal delivery is also more mannered to the point where it sometimes sounds affected. I don't doubt his sincerity, but it's difficult to recreate passion in a recording studio, and some of the inflections and melodic swoops come off a bit forced. "Bruises Like Badges" is the biggest offender; each line gets an emotive twist that's effective once or twice, but at the end of every line distracts from the rest of the song.
Conversely, it's the lyrics on "Annabelle" that get distracting: "Death of synth-pop / White girls dance hip-hop / In a library loft / Where hipsters build walls / You're in like a lion and out like a siren." Sure, that's nice and all but WHAT. THE. HELL. All them fancy words deserve at least a spark of humor or playfulness. Instead, they're sung in the same serious, crestfallen voice to a slow waltz. The chorus, however, is sweet relief. With Gartman's warm harmony supporting, DeRosa delivers a sweet crooning "oooooh," knocking it up into falsetto range for a second before invoking the song's namesake. Finally, "In the Cold of Your Room" opens up DeRosa's voice and it achieves in full what it had only attempted until then. When he takes it up the octave, his voice sparkles and feels at home in its musical setting and earns your trust for the rest of the album. "Weight of My Soul" is a standout, 7-minute blowout with creepy half steps and dirty, low-down ambience.
Gartman, the Phife Dawg half of the equation, isn't as hot and cold as his partner. Like the Phifer, he's not as omnipresent but he always delivers. His four songs on Moody Pike have a certain northeastern soul born of factory towns, winding roads that were once cow paths, and a small gray sky hidden by hills and trees. "Lovely Lace" is so short and sweet you might miss the fact that it's about "the local dive topless place." Gartman's voice is guileless, sounding a hair like James Taylor fronting the Grateful Dead. Menke's dobro buzzes throughout, and the unassuming quality of the song is effectively disarming. "Quarters" and "Winter Slides" recall Stephen Desaulnier's work with Scud Mountain Boys. The chorus of the former is heartbreaking because it's plain spoken, not over-dramatized. When Gartman sings "I knew you couldn't be trusted," you feel like putting an arm around your buddy and sharing a few tears and beers. On the latter, harmonized vocals slide over major seventh chords toe the line between warmth and melancholy.
Gartman's songs feel more comfortable inside their skins, but the promising second half of Moody Pike suggests that DeRosa might not be far behind in producing a mood rather than pushing one. Though the collection doesn't quite reach the heights it aspires to, it's still solid and like the esox lucius (the Northern, if not moody, Pike fish) Pale Horse and Rider could travel far if given the chance.