Armistead Burwell Smith IV has finally given into the pressure. Heretofore, Smith has been content to sit back and watch as his prolific partner in Pinback, Rob Crow, issued EP after EP of solo work and side projects. But no more, Armistead Burwell Smith IV, a.k.a. "Zach", has dug himself out of gargantuan pile of Rob Crow master tapes and at long last released his very own solo EP. And (gasp) it sounds like Pinback. When last we heard from him, Smith and partner were tirelessly working on the expansion of their ingenious bedroom indie pop. In fact, they were making quite a bit of progress. The Offcell EP swirled with a futuristic or, at the very least, a progressive aura. Layered sound and complex rhythms propelled the gorgeous 11-minute shape-shifting epic "Grey Machine" into the realm of the ethereal. Finally, transcendence was upon them. The sky was seemingly limitless. What's next? What has the conquering hero brought us? The answer: his increasingly familiar bag of tricks.
Smith has scaled back his efforts at achieving the grandiose, and instead created more of what is becoming his trademark: smart, complex, but enjoyable pop. Even a casual Pinback listener will experience a strange sense of deja vu from the very first note of the album's opening track, "Forever This Cyanide". With the aid of his or her handy Pinback checklist, the average listener will be able to identify the song's key elements one by one until the proper conclusion can be reached. Are the guitars clean but muted and affected in the style completely noticeable as belonging to Pinback? Yes. Do the drums lock in with the vocal rhythm making for an impossibly catchy and immediate synergy? Check. Does a glance at the lyrics reveal melancholy musings? Let's see: "They've poisoned my atmosphere and I'm choking on their dreams." Absolutely. Have such melancholy words ever seemed so suited to a sing along? No, never. Is the artist's ability to walk this line maddeningly impressive? Yes. Tally the score, affirmative on all counts, it's Pinback! I mean, Systems Officer.
This is by no means a bad thing. It is just simply that: a known quantity. To be fair, this record has some quite remarkable moments. The high point has to be the beautifully expanding and contracting "Signature Red". As a point a comparison, it feels like a five-minute mini-epic along the lines of "Grey Machine". The song beats a constricted, repetitive sadness for two and a half minutes before sprawling into a swell of lengthy bass notes and heavenly vocals and back again in a blink of an eye. Everyone would like to be able to achieve such a feat with a similar grace and ease, but few people can. The beautifully redemptive piano and electronic drum piece "Hael" is also mind-numbingly gorgeous. The vocals are otherworldly, and the layers of guitar, piano, vocals, and recorded sound swell into something truly rare and moving.
That being said, the album's other two tracks feel like well-worn ground. On both "Systems Officer", with its quasi-reggae rhythm taken right out of the Police catalog, and "Desert/Sea", Smith comes dangerously close to wearing himself thin. Casual listeners will be intrigued, but more avid fans will find themselves trying to figure out which Pinback song Smith couldn't get out of his head that day. All in all it's a toss up for both Smith and the listener. Smith has our attention, but only time will tell if the he's going to fulfill the promise of greatness that many have bestowed upon him. If not, he might simply keep making enjoyable pop music one EP at a time, which is certainly a greatness in and of itself.