Pinback’s first two studio albums and EPs were of pretty much the same type. Those who like Pinback will argue that this means a fan of any one of their albums will undoubtedly enjoy their entire catalog. Detractors, on the other hand, argue that everything sounds the same. The style of Pinback albums – “atmospheric, yet gently propulsive,” according to NPR – varies from release to release, but only slightly, like shades of gray on a color scale. Their debut album, Pinback was atmospheric, in that song structure took a backseat to experiments with multi-tracking and the songs were filled with traditional pop hooks that seemed to come out of nowhere. 2001’s Blue Screen Life was more propulsive than atmospheric, with vocals going from a whisper to a wail and more traditional verse-chorus-verse structure on roughly half of the songs. Last year’s Offcell EP experimented with sampling and field recordings, but was generally more of the same. They have always been the type of rock band that NPR might play, if it played rock bands. This has never bothered me, but just like NPR itself, it makes them a surprisingly divisive topic of conversation.
Summer in Abaddon, Pinback’s latest release and the first for Chicago’s venerable Touch & Go label, moves them ever-so-slightly closer to being a straightforward rock band. The band is still a duo – Rob Crowe and Armistead Burwell Smith IV – who share songwriting and multi-instrumental credits. In concert, and without the benefit of studio manipulations, Pinback turned their album tracks into full-band arrangements. Obviously in person and coming through a Marshall stack, the music doesn’t sound atmospheric. Nor, really, does Summer in Abaddon. Rob Crowe’s vocals are as assertive as they’ve ever been. The arrangements depend a lot more on traditional melody than sudden shifts in tempo and key. It’s not exactly a muscular album – shades of gray, and all – but it’s getting there.
Initially, these incremental changes work very well. Both Crow and Smith have good ears for low-key tunefulness in their compositions, and the first two songs, “Non Photo Blue” and “Sender,” display an impressive ability to merge several very different musical sections into a single pop song. “Syracuse” may be the most out of character song on Summer in Abaddon,, but if it’s any indication of where this band is headed, it may be the best. It follows the rote intro-verse-swell to the bridge-chorus format, but it’s definitely catchy and mixed to perfection.
Most of the album’s middle section is forgettable, consisting of languorous ballads like “Bloods on Fire” that seem entirely formless. Indeed, for a band whose songs all sound the same, Pinback can be maddeningly inconsistent. At some points, though, this formlessness pays off – take “AFK” as an example. Opening with nu-metal wailing, it gradually gives way to a pleasant set of guitar and bass arpeggios, and as far as redemption goes, its final lyric – “and I miss you, not in a Slint way, but I miss you” – is, at the least, pretty funny.
Pinback finally seems poised to break, given the public growing receptivity to independent bands and their new label’s distribution network. While not really better or worse than their previous albums, Summer in Abaddon is at least pretty good – more of exactly what fans wanted. As it’s been released at the right time, it will almost certainly be their most renowned album.
By Tom Zimpleman