Pinback is ready. Ready for FM radio, ready to be heard, ready to succeed. Ready to be embraced by MTV and movie soundtracks and new listeners who’ve never heard of them. Pinback is ready to move forward by going backward. In short, they’re ready to move some major units. Because that’s actually the point, isn’t it? So how have they done it, and why now?
The former can be easily answered. Summer of Abaddon is a conglomeration of the directions that each of Pinback’s previous albums and EPs took, with this latest series of recordings finding a center between what came before. For anyone who’s been following the band’s career for the last six years, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Is Pinback’s music too derivative of itself to be appreciated? Not necessarily.
The latter question — that of why now — might be answered in a variety of ways. This is the first record produced under the group’s new contract with Touch and Go Records, a label known for earnest, cerebral post-rock bands like Quasi and Calexico. In truth, a perfect fit. So maybe Pinback got tired of messing around and decided they wanted to try something different. They wanted to be popular. After all, Armistead Burwell Smith IV and Rob Crow have tried everything else.
Originally forming as a side project of a side project, Pinback technically spawned out of Smith’s previous, underrated band 3 Mile Pilot, and a Crow’s virtual clown car of groups in which he claimed membership, including Physics, Thingy and Heavy Vegetable. When the San Diego natives started playing together, they weren’t seeking stardom. They were merely looking for another way to express themselves musically; a way in which their other projects limited. In the words of millions of musicians across the globe, Smith and Crow just got together and jammed. As it turned out, they had chemistry. The duo relied on Smith’s living room, and a trusty Macintosh computer, to put together their first, self-titled album.
The recording caught the attention of the Ace Fu Record label, but a legal battle over Smith and Crow’s contractual status kept the debut from being released for a year. The delay couldn’t have resulted in more exquisite timing. When the smoke cleared, Pinback became a buzz band in 2000, finding spots on college radio and as a featured artist on the now defunct Napster Web site. But when the economy crashed, so, seemingly, did Pinback’s chances of success. Without any marketing or publicity, they released another full length album for Ace Fu and two EPs on Jade Tree and Absolutely Kosher record labels. With a new contract, the folks at Touch and Go appear to be offering Pinback the kind of support they need to get off the ground and be noticed. The irony is that the album has appeared on as many critics’ “best of the year” lists as it has been cited as the best album you didn’t hear in 2004.
Summer in Abaddon starts off with the group’s signature syncopated bass line, and the lyrical tale of a heartbroken post to a blog. Much like Grandaddy, Pinback weave classic pop fodder into the modern machinery of mainframe technology and to generate a form of post modernism that’s even alienated from alienation. The album quickly establishes itself as a strange blend of precise intensity and sweetness, like a combination of Rush and Hall and Oates.
When Summer in Abaddon sounds new wavy, as tracks like “Sender” do, it’s not so much because of current musical trends or the band’s influences. Instead, Burwell and Smith actually seem to be choosing the most effective style to convey feeling. In fact, they’re so engrossed in achieving the perfect melodic construct that at times they all but ignore the lyrical portion of their songs. “Sender” is a perfect example, finding an emotional core of Abaddon without relying on anything more than snippets of thoughts and clichés to compliment the delicate guitar and church organ.
“Bloods on Fire” relies on more of the glassy organ affect heard in Sender, and might remind you of Air’s Moon Safari album from a few years ago. This is the type of bittersweet melody that the group is best at. The melancholy is powerful enough to make you feel happy about feeling sad.
Cuts like “Fortress” make you wonder why the group built so much of the album on their foundation, as the first half of the album does. After all, this is the type of song that could easily make Pinback someone’s flavor of the moment, in the same way that The Shins were earlier this year. The same holds true for “3X0,” with a syncopated, jazzy opening that builds with the use of an evolving piano. The melody, again, is wonderful — the sound inventive enough to make you wonder how another band didn’t think of it first years ago. Again, the sweet melody evolves and evolves, such that you don’t want the song to end.
“The Yellow Ones” combines “3X0’s” melodic beauty with touches that seem to come straight from an elementary school science video. Seeds sprout into trees and tadpoles swim into frogs in the fast motion slow down of “The Yellow Ones”. The spoken word mantra in the background that “”there’s a strange shape in the sky/a bright light over the horizon” might bring to mind a happier version of Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” off of OK Computer.The vocals here could be Wings era Paul McCartney. These late entries on Summer in Abaddon point to what Pinback might have done with this album in its entirety. That is, if they weren’t trying so hard to shuffle around the cards and re-present themselves to listeners who might have missed them the first time.
Pinback can’t be faulted for trying to capture a larger audience with their new record, because the fact of the matter is they’re a good band with tremendous potential and ability. But for fans that have been following the group for some time, you’d like to see them get there already, and get on with it.