PAS/CAL, an unlikely experimental pop group from Detroit, has made a pretty astounding debut album
PAS/CAL makes the kind of music you don’t hear too much these days. It’s intelligent. It’s full of ideas. It has richly painted, complex characters who you’re more likely to describe as “protagonists” than to automatically assume are projections of the band’s songwriter, Casimer Pascal. And best of all, it’s dressed up in the sort of unexpected pop costume that causes you to catch your breath at the infectious spirit of it all.
Detroit may not be known for its indie scene, but it’s produced one of the most exciting new acts to emerge for a long time. The seven-strong group take a tongue-in-cheek approach to their music, as well as to the band itself. With names like LTD, Gene Corduroy, and Richard Panic, the band’s full of characters with outsized personalities, and a similarly idiosyncratic approach to songwriting. Not that they're working entirely alone; there are other groups making this kind of music. Boat! has put out a number of albums that shuttle between catchy melody and casual, hurried-past insight, and Canadian artist Owen Pallett, with his project Final Fantasy, brings a similar sense of quirky exuberance to his experimental pop songs. But neither of those bands have quite the panache of PAS/CAL.
The group has been around for about six years, but I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura is the debut full-length LP. Three EPs -- Dear Sir, Oh Honey, We’re Ridiculous, and The Handbag Memoirs -- make up the band’s back catalogue, and though a handful of songs from these releases find their way onto the LP, the new album’s quality makes you want to return to those EPs and listen, thoroughly, again. Like the Hold Steady, the group knows the fan-base value of self-reference: one song on the new album (“O Honey, We’re Ridiculous”) takes its name from, but doesn’t appear on, the previous EP.
All that time playing together has allowed PAS/CAL to cement a strong musical identity. It’s capricious without ever being irrelevant. Right out of the gates, the album bounds forward with exuberance and a barely-contained plethora of ideas. In fact, this hardly lets up over the first six tracks. There’s the upbeat travel song “We Made Our Way, We Amtrakked”, with its rebellious, life-loving shout of affirmation, “The answer is yes I will sit next to you”. There’s the bustling geek-pop “Summer Is Almost Here”, which undercuts the anticipation of summer sunbathing with the unexpected twist of concern -- there’s something wrong with the protagonist’s companion, though we’re not quite sure what. And on top of that there’s the insanely catchy “O Honey, We’re Ridiculous”, a defiant guitar stomp that out-Weezers even old-school Weezer: geeks are much more likely to write this literate music than straight 1-5-1 power chords. “All our hopes and dreams are such silly dreams”, Pascal declares, “They’re just -- well, they’re just like us”.
One aspect of the music that distinguishes PAS/CAL from lesser artists is that the group develops ideas fully across the musical shifts within their songs. This means they’re not just purveyors of well-constructed pastiche, but that each change of direction is a considered amplification of a song’s underlying conceit. Songs often break the five minute mark, but never feel over-stretched. “You Were Too Old for Me” is illustrative: the ending is worlds apart from the straight indie-pop introduction; between, the song bounds from one idea to another, pausing momentarily three minutes in to catch its breath. It’s true, the melodramatic outlook and unironic exuberance may strike some listeners as a little precious. You might be turned off by the way Pascal rolls his r’s. But there’s no real reason to be. It’s supremely refreshing to hear a band without a hint of whiny indie rock vocal; it’s all celebration, idosyncracy, fun.
Occasionally, in the album’s second half, when the energy momentarily dips, the music can come across like a kind of inside joke that the listener doesn’t always get. But it’s PAS/CAL’s success to make this a thrilling challenge, something that causes us to return to these songs, to attempt to understand them, again and again.
The young man, writing his novel on the train, complains “I haven’t written a goddamned thing in so long”. He’s too distracted by the images of regular life he sees through the window -- and can’t hope to capture with his pen. That’s a short moment from “Dearest Bernard Living”. The song moves on, musically and thematically, but the image lingers, perfectly captured. Moments like this make I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura a very special debut indeed.