With stretch marks out in full display, Pretty Girls Make Graves hit puberty and deliver Élan Vital, an album shaped by the band's growing pains.
Show me a band without growing pains and I'll show you stretch marks so obvious only obsession could obscure them. Your favorite acts, from the Streets to the Strokes, just met the tail end of musical puberty -- the teenage wasteland part. They changed. But you don't have to embrace the new them. Acceptance is fleeting, and when it fades, when the reality of the new them begins to grind against your very fiber, it's not uncommon or uncouth to seek a divorce, or at least a trial separation.
Say, for instance, the lyrics -- once crude, concise and coy. What will you say when the spaces in which lead singer Andrea Zollo previously left you -- back pockets and bedrooms -- become "stygian shores" and "pyrite pedestals"? And upon uncovering their meaning, will you wonder (alliteration aside) why Homeric references were warranted?
Of Élan Vital's 12 songs, "Pyrite Pedestal" re-defines PGMG with the most authority, finding the group dashing from old to new with anxiety-inducing results.
A galloping bass line/drum fill starts it, never slowing. New addition and keyboardist Leonna Marrs injects into this tension a melancholic chime. Zollo's singing now. About how seeking approval's arms is alluring, then into this:
That ain't even like myself / No [here, she pauses, leaving just the initial bass line to sputter along until ...], things are going to change,whereupon Ms. Marrs marches the entire thing deep into Pete Townshend territory, i.e., the darting synthesizers sound of "Baby O'Riley".
Mind you, I quite like that song -- for the way it says I'm nervous about how you'll react to the new me but I'm not afraid to strip naked and change in front of you. Zollo's delivery is as anthemic as ever, though suddenly she seems sedated, which describes this incarnation of PGMG perfectly. Don't get me wrong; "The Magic Hour", which loots the rhythm section from Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On" and even the Coldplay/Radiohead-esque "Pearls on a Plate", pushes this band to broader vistas. However, these places are not yet familiar (and may never be) -- to them or us.
Certain colleagues in music criticism have insisted that Élan Vital lacks the teeth of previous albums (read: it's been "defanged"). Much the same feeling woos me. With no teeth, the songs on this album clamp down with both gums. Of these, "Parade" is pure aggravation, a paean for the union movement, almost childish in its treatment. "Pictures of a Night Scene" finds the group back in darkened theatre mode as Marrs conjures up the Michael Myers Halloween theme. Towards the end, though, it collapses as Jay Clark indulges his inner Ornette Coleman: out comes a sax and some hideous skronking. An odd sensation arises, but no sharp pain.
As it causes no pain, you pay it no mind. That time (three years since The New Romance), a lineup change (goodbye guitarist Nate Thelen, largely responsible for said missing bite; hello Marrs), and an aborted album (written in 2004-2005) have worn dull. Its post-punk teeth cease to matter.
If you don't like it, you don't like it. Forget 'em and go call on those more reliably boring bands whose anthemic albums have all the excitement of eternal ennui.