Pinback, the duo of Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell “Zach” Smith IV, crafts a uniquely understated but engaging sound on their 1999 debut album. With its patient guitarwork, steady low-end, and mostly programmed beats, the record sets a dark, intimate atmosphere.
On “Chaos Engine,” the group uses a repeating keyboard part and minimal vocals — consisting mostly of high-pitched exclamations of “eee ooo” — to draw the listener into a somewhat sinister world. Tracks like this illustrate why Pinback is the ultimate headphones band; their dense compositions, relying more on texture than melody, require a close listen to pick up all the nuances buried within these deceptively simple pop songs.
“Shag” is another highlight, with a bouncy groove over which the duo trades whispered vocals, including the cheerily-delivered chorus: “push the little baby down the spiral stairs.”
The pair demonstrates the more rocking side of their sound — which is only fully manifested in the band’s live appearances — on the rumbling “Crutch,” while “Versailles” is among Crow and Smith’s loveliest songs, with a simple piano part which culminates to the song’s drawn-out climax.
The album-closing “Montaigne,” one of 2 tracks to feature live drums, is a slow-burning epic marked by long periods of instrumental build-up. The track’s lyrics, like most of Pinback’s, uses repetition effectively to inject emotion into the song. But the album’s most affecting lyrics come on the downbeat opener “Tripoli,” with the lines, “sad I’m gonna die/ hope it’s gonna happen later/ than I think.”
Pinback’s debut, unfairly overlooked even in indie circles, is a great example of how pop can be quiet and introspective but still utterly gripping.
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