Pinback - Blue Screen Life
Did I miss something here? Is emo the next big thing?
No? Then I'm totally stumped. How else can you explain so many excellent bands turning whiny all of a sudden? First Death Cab for Cutie, now Pinback. I swear, if the new Flaming Lips album so much as mentions heartbreak, I'm going to shoot myself.
For the sake of total disclosure, I'll admit the following. There was a period of about six months when I was kind of into emo. Back then, those off-kilter repetitious chords meant enough to me that it didn't matter that they never changed. And something about the way the singers tried so for harmony but never quite made it hit me hard. And then, somewhere along the line, I grew up. Ambition supplanted self-loathing, and with each passing day I had less of a place for emo. I watched as, completely independent of my own musical evolution, the same thing happened to most of my friends. The days of pumping the volume and getting all cathartic to the Get Up Kids were gone. Nowadays when we hung out, we all kicked back in our La-Z-Boys, chillin' to Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto.
This would seem to reflect a natural tendency. As one matures, so too does one's musical taste. Emo has its merits, and I'll even maintain that bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and the Weakerthans do it well, managing to milk more out of a generic formula than they rightfully should. But largely, emo remains cheap catharsis for teenaged middle-class white males-- the music snob's equivalent to rap-metal.
Which is why I can't claim to understand Pinback's Blue Screen Life. Their 1998 self-titled debut was one of indie rock's finest hidden treasures. A collaboration between Three Mile Pilot's Armistead Burwell Smith IV (aka Zach) and Optiganally Yours/Thingy/Heavy Vegetable guy Rob Crow, it set lush guitar and synth to hip-hop beats, seamlessly incorporating scratched vinyl and a spattering of other sounds. Each song was a patchwork of four or five hooks that traded off, repeating and varying almost like a fugue. The vocals were gentle, like Sam Prekop singing a lullaby, which often betrayed their twisted lyrical content (one song in particular-- with the nicest, most melodic lyrics about pushing babies down staircases ever set to music-- sticks out in my head to this day). But on Blue Screen Life, the songwriting has devolved into straight-up formula, with most of the instrumentation that elevated the first missing as well. And, oh yeah, it happens to be decidedly emo.
From the opening moments of "Offline P.K.," you can tell something's wrong. The duo trades lyrical jabs, their disparate vocal parts sparring with each other in much the same way they did on their last record. Only these vocals are uncharacteristically abrasive. And in place of their usual musical intricacies are half-assed emo guitars which trade off between two riffs-- one jagged, one slightly less jagged, both boring-- for the duration of the song.
The next track, "Concrete Seconds," offers some hope at first. The lyrics tread dangerously close to sap ("Late at station/ Feeling all wound up/ Got to walk several blocks past you"), but the delivery redeems them. The duo trades off, one doing rapid-fire vocals over simple but pleasant Rentals-esque synths; the other countering with a mantra: "Anything I say to you is gonna come out wrong anyway." It's a pleasant track, until it reaches its bridge. Here, the vocals kick into a dead-on Jim Adkins impersonation, as Zach and Crow trade off moaning meaningless dreck like, "Here in my house/ In no seconds/ Count the footsteps/ Count the seconds." It ruins an otherwise good track, leaving a bitter taste in place of the pleasant melody that had dominated a minute earlier.
This happens a lot on Blue Screen Life. "X I Y," "Prog," "Tres" and "Your Sickness" all have long, dragged-out, whiny vocals that sound a hell of a lot like Mr. Lucky Denver Mint. Not only is the sound unoriginal, but it also leaves me wondering: of all the people in our rich musical heritage that Zach and Crow could've ripped off, why the fuck would they choose Jimmy Eat World?
Sure, there are songs that come closer to the sound that first endeared me to Pinback. "Penelope" is pretty nice, with Kings of Convenience-style acoustic guitar, a warm bassline, handclap percussion that grows more synthesized as the song progresses, and plenty of lush ooh-ahh's to fill in any lingering empty spots. "West" breaks the auditory mold for a few minutes, featuring piano, organ and accordion. And the vocals are... well, they're less whiny then most of what's on this disc. But "Penelope" just isn't enough and "West" still sounds tossed-off and uninspired, regardless of the instrumentation.
The tendency is usually that bands, like listeners, grow out of the emo thing as they mature, but Pinback has got things all inverted. Yes, the musicianship is competent and-- unlike most bands that attempt this stuff-- Zach and Crow can actually sing. The production is sharper than before, too. But none of this nullifies the real problem here. Emo or not, the fact is, Blue Screen Life is fucking boring. Nothing really stands out; no moment grabs my attention. All the songs sound alike. Frankly, I wouldn't recommend this to fans of Hey Mercedes any more than I would to those who run screaming at the first mention of the word Kinsella.
It seems sad to me that a perfectly good pop group would deliberately choose to emo-fy themselves, even though I concede that it's all just a matter of personal taste. But even sadder is a perfectly good pop group putting out an album as boring and uninspired as Blue Screen Life. Come on, guys, really.
1997-10-22 - Ultra Zine
1999-11-26 - Ultra Zine
2002-03-19 - Sponic Zine
2002-03-21 - Comes With A Smile
2002-06-01 - Copacetic Zine
2002-06-10 - Sponic Zine
2004-10-14 - The Daily Free Press
2004-11-18 - The Martlet
Goblin Cock - Bagged And Boarded - Heavy Metal Magazine
Goblin Cock - Bagged And Boarded - Spin
Optiganally Yours - Exclusively Talentmaker - All Music
Optiganally Yours - Exclusively Talentmaker - Pitchfork
Pinback - Blue Screen Life - Delusions of Adequacy
Pinback - Blue Screen Life - Hand Carved
Pinback - Blue Screen Life - Pitchfork
Pinback - Offcell - Delusions of Adequacy
Pinback - Offcell - Dusted
Pinback - Offcell - Pitchfork
Pinback - Offcell - PopMatters
Pinback - Pinback - Pitchfork
Pinback - Some Voices - Pitchfork
Pinback - Some Voices - PopMatters
Pinback - Summer In Abaddon - Dusted
Pinback - Summer In Abaddon - Pitchfork
Pinback - Summer In Abaddon - PopMatters
Rob Crow - Lactose Adpet - All Music
Rob Crow - Living Well - Audiversity
Rob Crow - Living Well - Built on a Weak Spot
Rob Crow - Living Well - Coke Machine Glow
Rob Crow - Living Well - LAS
Rob Crow - Living Well - Monkeybiz.ca
Rob Crow - Living Well - Pitchfork
Rob Crow - Living Well - Playback:stl
Rob Crow - Living Well - Pop Matters
Rob Crow - Living Well - Pop News
Rob Crow - Living Well - Punk News
Rob Crow - Living Well - Reuters/Billboard
Rob Crow - Living Well - Tiny Mix Tapes
Rob Crow - Living Well - Toolshed
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Delusions of Adequacy
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Dusted
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Indie Workshop
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Opus
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Pitchfork
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Pop Matters
Thingy - To The Innocent - All Music
Thingy - To The Innocent - Pitchfork
Thingy - To The Innocent - PopMatters