The Pica Beats Beating Back the Claws of the Cold

[Hardly Art; 2008]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: indie pop, jangle pop
Others: Belle & Sebastian, The Decemberists, The Essex Green

The Pica Beats is the project of Vermont transplant Ryan Barrett. Barrett writes all the words and music and plays several instruments, while drummer Colin English and a cast of local contributors round out a musically fleshy record. With a motley grab-bag of musicians and instruments (Barrett himself has an affinity for the sitar), it’s a bit of a surprise, then, that Beating Back the Claws of the Cold is so samey.

Of the record’s first six songs, none stand apart, and the two instrumentals (“Martine, as Heavy Lifter” and “Beta.Space.Hit”) are more filler than a record like this can support. The bouncy “Summer Cutting Kale,” built around a fluttery synth figure, is nice, but at five-and-a-half minutes overstays its welcome. This is a problem found on many of these songs, as eight of the eleven top four minutes.

On Claws’ second half, The Pica Beats struggle mightily to punch-up mid-tempo numbers like “Cognac & Rum” and “Hope, Was Not a Smith Family Tradition.” Unfortunately, they’re undercut by Barrett’s awkward delivery (he’s a sort of Win Butler/Colin Meloy mash-up) and overstuffing of relatively simple songs with synthesizers, horns, and multi-tracked vocal choirs. Only “Shallow Dive” stands out; Barrett’s vocal melody matches up nicely with a twinkly guitar line and sweeping, chilly synths.

A big part of enjoying Beating Back the Claws of the Cold depends on one’s taste for Barrett’s ultra-quavery voice and the larger-than-life arrangements. The album’s an impressive document of Barrett’s talent, but I don’t hear the hooks that similar acts like Belle & Sebastian built their name on. Without them, The Pica Beats remain an also-ran.

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