This band is hard to compare to others, because they're quite unlike so many others.
Because it is difficult to accurately convey through words how something sounds, music reviewers often are forced to draw comparisons between new work and old. Bands that play three-chord rock with distortion and a thumping 4/4 beat can easily be lumped in with similar-sounding groups and called garage rock, for example. When a band doesn't neatly fit into one category or suitably ape the sound of familiar contemporaries, equations usually become part of the description, a group described as sounding like so-and-so fronting such-and-such covering this-and-that.
Take Pinetop Seven, for example. On earlier works, the band sounded like Mark Kozelek fronting Calexico covering Lambchop. What does that really tell you? For starters, singer Darren Richard's vocals often share the same deceptive sweetness conveyed by Kozelek's clear tenor. His band also relies on the same sort of country/folk/rock/spaghetti western instrument choices as Calexico, and his songs, like those of Lambchop, are cinematic in nature, full of dynamic swells and moody atmospherics.
But again, what does that really tell you? Perhaps enough to give you a general feel of how earlier discs like Bringing Home the Last Great Strike sounded, to one set of ears anyway. It also tells you that the band, clearly an antecedent to the aforementioned artists, didn't yet have a sound and style all its own.
On Pinetop Seven's new disc, however, the band is starting to blend these elements more seamlessly to create something that transcends those benchmarks. There is a bit of alchemy at work on The Night's Bloom in creating what is clearly its best work. And that's saying something. Richard and his ever-rotating ensemble have chipped away the influences to reveal a unique sound that is the equal of anything Kozelek, Calexico, or Lambchop have done, something that sounds like nothing else out there.
The band has been building toward this point for years. After forming around Richard in Chicago in 1996 to play a fractured version of orchestrated alt-country, the group grew in size and stature, adding depth and texture to its sound on Rigging the Top Lights and the aforementioned Bringing Home the Last Great Strike as it shrugged off its alt-country leanings for something that drew on a broader range of styles. While awfully good, those discs only hinted at what Richard has accomplished in The Night's Bloom.
The Night's Bloom is a stunning record. While it initially feels like a natural progression from those earlier discs, it reveals itself over several listens to be a dense, rich work that improves upon its predecessors with much stronger hooks, better pacing, and airier arrangements that allow the many conventional and unconventional instruments to be heard.
"Easy Company", the first complete track after a short instrumental opener, is a good example of this. Opening with Richard's strummed acoustic guitar, the song builds as electric bass, drums, trumpet, and vibes are added. Each instrument is crisp and distinct, creating a bed that could captivate without vocals. Then Richard comes in with singing that is more assured than on past works, finding the subtle hooks within the song's structure.
Other songs walk a similar line, blending many instruments without building something too large and unwieldy that might otherwise overwhelm the song's melody. "Born Among the Born Again", for instance, begins with a fanfare of sorts that joins horns and strings with the rest of the band before giving way to Richard's banjo, bells, and toy piano, which color the song's quieter passages.
That leaves room for Richard's impressionistic lyrics. Some would call these short stories put to music, but they are more like shards or narrative. Never an ebullient soul, Richard spins tales of people watching others fall flat, of the end of one's days, and, of course, of love gone wrong. In songs that seem to successively tell a story, the singer apologizes for coming back, saying "I've slept in a suitcase, passed around the fringe of silent handshakes I'm always taken in." That gives way to what feels like the next morning, where she says "It was wrong to let you in, we can't do this again." Even "June," a seemingly sweet story of the consummation of love turns dark with the lines "We'll run at night, do what we choose, I'll take the blame if you want me to."
The disc was recorded in the band's attic space in Chicago, and the 15 musicians who participated played everything from the standard guitar, bass, and drums, to more exotic instruments (and non-instruments) like shoe-horns, accordions, melodicas, pipes, and "an arsenal of clunky found percussion." But the last release from the band, the tour- and mail order-only Lest We Forget, shows that Richard can create something this lush and intricate without so many fellow musicians and their instruments. On a handful of demos, he layers many of these same instruments to create songs that, while less polished and lacking the lush hooks of the songs on The Night's Bloom, show him fully capable of making compelling music without his compatriots.
On this new disc then, he shows that he has mastered harnessing the talents and sounds of others to augment his own work while maintaining the elements at the songs' core that make them so compelling. In doing so he has created one of the year's best discs and pushed the sound of his band into uncharted territory. "Pinetop Seven" will probably never be used as an adjective to describe another band, because it seems impossible that another artist or group could approximate this sound.