Saturday, August 8, 2009

Delusions of Adequacy review Pictures of Then

Pictures Of Then – And The Wicked Sea
August 3, 2009 by Adam Costa
Category: Albums (and EPs)

Pictures Of Then - And The Wicked Sea
An overwhelming sense of guilt is the only thing I feel as I review this
second long player from Minnesota’s Pictures Of Then. Here’s a band that’s
had its music featured on two different MTV reality shows and even toured as
part of the network’s Choose or Lose Tour. This is also the same lot of
musicians who garnered decent billing at four respectable American music
festivals, and charmed a majority of the indie music critic coterie in the
process. Search the Web, and you’d be hard pressed to find any sort of
slander about the quartet that’s been dubbed an “amazing blend of reverent
classicism and modern vision.” Which brings me back to my guilt: I am
altogether lacking sentiment of any kind toward Pictures Of Then. The group’s
sound certainly doesn’t make my jaw drop with inklings of a musical
revolution, but on the contrary, it’s not bad music by any marker, either.
If I were to invoke a favorite buzz word of the aughties, the only one that
comes to mind is “meh.”

Certainly though, these guys deserve substantial credit for everything that
they’re able to successfully incorporate into their songs. Listening to And
The Wicked Sea, you’re likely to find fragments of Britpop, psychedelic
folk, alt-country, and indie rock spread out across its twelve tracks in
equal measure. There’s no weak link to be found here; Pictures Of Then sound
remarkably confident no matter which zeitgeist they seem to be chasing. The
album’s bookends, entitled “A Glimpse Of Dawn” and “Lands Uncharted”
respectively, feature the same yearning melody set to divergent styles. The
former has its roots firmly planted in the driving thunder of indie rock,
while the latter (also the album’s finest moment by a long shot) is a
psychedelia-tinged meditation on time and space with ghostly vocal harmonies
and lush piano chords. Yet for every genre that finds itself in the capable
hands of Pictures Of Then, there’s another group out there who has done it
better. That opening track? Were Casey Call’s lead vocals more unhinged, it’d
be a fantastic Modest Mouse tune. The closing number recalls Grizzly Bear,
recalling Radiohead.

And so it goes. Most of the songs on And The Wicked Sea seem to reference
either the wryness of Spoon or the fractured sentimentality of Wilco. “When
It Stings,” in addition to being absurdly catchy and fun with its jaunty
drumbeat and handclaps, finds Call ironically singing, “We won’t be spoon
fed like before.” With gossamer falsetto vocals and a tender acoustic guitar
groove, “Ahead” could’ve very well appeared on Wilco’s Sky Blue Blue back in
2007. Featuring an appealing dusty back roads sort of vibe (whistles
included), the same argument could be made for “Questions Anyone?”

“Nowhere Is Somewhere,” despite making ubiquitous use of that earworm rhythm
from Coldplay’s “Clocks,” is a welcome change in mood from the brash and
sometimes acerbic tone of the album’s sequencing. More of a piano driven
ballad, the tune works well as an ironic hipster ballad, replete with a
chorus that suggests, “I’d rather go nowhere together / than somewhere
alone.” If there’s any other track here that bears mentioning, it’s “Wicked
Sea.” While certainly not the album’s most affecting number, it helps those
who have never seen Pictures Of Then in concert understand the origins of
their stellar live reputation. With timbres that suggest, of all things, Van
Halen’s “Poundcake,” (remember that drill?), the dual guitar attack of Call
and Joe Gamble has a jagged and angular edge to it. With an occasional
crackle and howl in the lead vocals, the song flirts briefly with punk rock
chaos before quickly segueing into the austere beauty of the final track.

I want so badly to feel something discernible about this band, be it disgust
or profound adoration. I suppose then, that my guilt for not falling for
them on first (or fourth) listen has given way to frustration, as evidenced
within the fragile atmosphere of “Stuck”: “Stuck on this chain / makes it
easy to complain.” Meh.

File Under: alt. country, Britpop, indie rock, psychedelic folk,

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