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The Pica Beats - Beating Back the Claws of the Cold

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Artist: The Pica Beats

Album: Beating Back the Claws of the Cold

Label: Hardly Art

Review date: Nov. 12, 2008

There’s no denying that Ryan Barrett’s done his homework. Pica Beats, his solo project turned full band, clearly knows the pop repertoire necessary to earn the title of eclectic; the songs on Beating Back the Claws of the Cold contain traces of everything from the baroque and psychedelic tendencies of the ‘70s to the radio-friendly hooks of ‘90s alt-rock. Barrett’s attempt at a historical survey of popular music is problematic, though, because it lacks any real direction. Without a real editorial force guiding the music, the album is equivalent to a book report on pop. There are plenty of great references, ranging from late-era Beatles to much of the Sub Pop catalog, but there’s no connecting thread.

Most confusing is the tension between woodsy simplicity and erudite allegory that Barrett juggles throughout the album. Blame it on geography; Barrett’s move from Vermont to Seattle manifests itself largely in the disconnect between composition and lyrical content. The heavy acoustic and woodwind presence owes a lot to the New England bedroom folk and also brings Brooklyn’s Woods to mind. Lyrically, however, Barrett utilizes the same didacticism as fellow Pacific Northwesterner Colin Meloy, whose influence on Pica Beats’ vocal stylings is distractingly obvious.

It’s an issue right from the start with album opener “Poor Old Ra.” A languorous oboe lays on top of a bouncy drum beat, supporting a truly autumnal melody. It’s catchy and brisk, headphone music you listen to while kicking through leaf piles, but instead of pensive reflection or naturism, Barrett’s voice competes instead of complements, delivering a history lesson at the expense of the song. There’s no denying how nimble he is in assailing the Egyptian sun god and addressing the tension between divinity and humanity. But with lines like “Hathor had changed to the lion and will always be combined, with Sekmet…and will kill all approaching / so give me a moment with her mane and I’ll see if I can tame, fell beast…and as Thoth I will bring her back,” the emotional core of the music and the story are sacrificed for a dense extended metaphor.

What makes it most frustrating isn’t when Barrett misses the mark; it’s when he finds that moment of clarity in the song and lingers not nearly as long as he should. When the bridge’s lyrics of “I am the tension / you are the tightrope” come up, all that highfalutin allusion to the dysfunctional Egyptian pantheon is laid bare, the meaning made clear and personal for the first time. It’s the only time Barrett makes himself vulnerable, and the only time the song really feels like the stand-out that it could have been.

Ideas are in no short supply for the Pica Beats. They just become muddled and indistinct without a more defined editing process. By almost aimlessly sampling the entire spectrum of pop music, Barrett defeats himself with his own eclecticism. Sure, it’s interesting to hear Ravi Shankar sitar leads interact with Northwest-style indie rhythms on “Hikikomori & the Rental Sisters,” but there’s no sense of discovery. The instrumental “Martine, As Heavy Lifter” fares a little better. It’s a Satjayit Ray soundtrack set against skronky arrhythmic horns, injecting some anxiety in the calm, measured sitar. The track stands alone in both its ambition and lack of vocals, though, making it seem that much more like a novelty piece.

A strong author can use this kind of assemblage to create a new context for seemingly disparate elements. For Barrett, however, the musical and historical references overshadow the product. Beating Back the Claws of the Cold aims for timelessness with its fusion of chamber pop, indie rock, and popular folk, but falls short as just another likable, ephemeral fall release.

By Evan Hanlon

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