Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pictures of Then – And the Wicked Sea on STEREO SUBVERSION

Pictures of Then – And the Wicked Sea
Album Reviews • Wednesday September 16th, 2009 • 9:49 am

The sea instinctively draws artists towards its promise of a muse and its transcendental landscape. Beowulf wrestled the sea monster, Ahab was consumed with it, and Icarus fell face-down into the sea after failing to heed his father’s warning. Minnesota’s Pictures of Then have fashioned their sophomore release after the wicked sea, though their songs romanticize the certain body of water rather than cast a dark shadow on it. But the dark shadows are few here and they are hidden by the pure pop buoyancy of the songs. And the Wicked Sea begins in a hopeful trance with the appropriate “A Glimpse of the Dawn” and ends just as resolutely with the ever-fading “Lands Uncharted.” Both songs bookend a journey through power-pop and acoustic strummers that is pleasant-enough but ultimately disjointed in its execution.

The first four tracks are where the action is; beyond that, the lack of cohesion damn-near sinks the ship, mid-journey. (Last oceanic reference, I promise.) The aforementioned intro song, “When It Stings,” “The Big Sell,” and “Nowhere is Somewhere” could all pass for long-lost Big Star tracks. “When It Stings” is primed with handclaps and even a kick-off “whoo!” to get the mess in gear. Its mobile bass-line and jagged guitars deter from the highly politicized lyrical matter: “We won’t follow anymore/ listen up, listen up/ we won’t be spoonfed like before.” And all of this before the big question gets asked, “Have they forgotten who it was that put them in control?” “The Big Sell” follows similar territory to similarly grand effect, only this time, the accusation is less thinly veiled: “You’re never ever go do no time, for your crimes/ but that don’t make you free.” Gems like this are what make power-pop so viable; the music shoots out of the gate faster than the lyrics can register. It’s a subtle, yet powerful effect that makes it that much sweeter to hear the second, third, and fourth times. And “Nowhere is Somewhere” is one of those songs that should/would/could be any summer radio hit, if we lived in an era that prized talent over beauty. Its sentiment is syrupy, yet straight on: “I’d rather go nowhere together/ than somewhere alone.” Love, of course, is one of the cornerstones of pop music.

Unfortunately, the songs lose steam beginning with the short, unnecessary “Stuck.” Afterwards, “Ahead” ushers in a vaguely ’50s beach-vibe shuffle that offers head-scratching and a bit of boredom. “Questions Anyone” pulls the same poor stunt again, so that by the time the out-of-place Elvis Costello-esque rocker “Wicked Sea” arrives, only one phrase comes to mind: “Wha’ happened?” Apart from its predecessors, album closer “Lands Uncharted” would have made a fine closer, but given the odd pairing that comes before it, its somber tone is too hard to take seriously.

And it’s a shame because And the Wicked Sea comes off strong with album-like potential, but should be trimmed down to a genius six-to-seven song EP. Pictures of Then didn’t exactly crash and burn like Icarus, but they did fly a little to close to charted, banal territory after a swift and satisfying takeoff.

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