Pigeons They Sweetheartstammers

[Soft Abuse; 2011]

Styles: dream(nightmare?)-pop, psych, space rock, (yawn) hauntology
Others: Broadcast, Pram, United States of America

Clearly, I miss Trish. It’s been a full year since the lead singer of Broadcast, and the first woman I loved without knowing personally, died of pneumonia. I am not recovered. I’m going up to strangers now: “God, you remind me of her.” It’s no way to live. And of course it’s an obnoxious way to approach a group like Pigeons, who — despite immediately coming off as that sort of eerie replicant Pandora’ll occasionally procure before it autopilots off into corporate bossa nova, and despite implying through their very existence that Trish lives on as an entity to be channelled — deserve to be assessed on their own terms. Right? It would be myopic, and probably no fun at all to read, if I pointed to the precise ways in which Pigeons’ newest album fails to just nail Broadcast’s unique combination of post-apocalyptic clutter, 1960s French pop, Krauty pulse, yearning cyborg-feminism, and so on. But understand: they’d be asking for it.

Liasons and Si Faustine, the Bronx duo’s two 2010 LPs, were poltergeists, the sort of retro that makes its squinting listener realize how transparent those cues that mark a release as ‘retro’ tend to be and how easy it is to take our pop culture’s maximalist beer-guts for granted. Retro has actually kept a weird kind of step with the present; nostalgia wouldn’t be effective, couldn’t have swallowed its own tail, if it didn’t paint a cleaner picture than memory alone. Meanwhile, Pigeons’ dislocated 1960s French pop was a nub as eroded as memory or artifact, and as such was hardly your mom’s clean/effective nostalgia. It’s hard to say whether these issues have become more or less complicated with They Sweetheartstammers: on the one hand, the album’s a gesture towards those claustrophobic ways in which time is anything but corrosive and subtractive, an ode to the mangled, indistinct shapes that supplant memory and history; on the other, and perhaps more eerily, those gestures collide with all sorts of unexpected barriers that make them feel ensealed and time-capsular.

Now, I want this to be a rich and full-bodied argument, but I can’t help but cut to the itch: it baffles me that an album with the biological, clinically probed, and absolutely contemporary feedback that introduces “Lauren” is still so slathered with oldschool acid-rock vampage wherever said vampage can find itself a maypole (the steadily flanging “Tournoi” was an easy target, and Keenan soundalike Wednesday Knudsen’s lulling vocal melody just gets massacred). I’m not suggesting cryogenics or anything, and there’s good evidence other than “Lauren” that these two haven’t just igloo’d themselves in Country Joe and the Fish LPs for the last 40 years like a lot of current musicians who revel in that low-pH stuff. It’s almost mashup-paradoxical, yet it was created by two currently-living humans — fact, Knudsen herself is the guitarist whose cooked machismo seems so at odds with the soporific vocals. The contrast is just too sharp and unsettling to be accidental.

So I’d propose that, instead of providing a stylistic grab-bag, which is itself almost a cookie-cutter album category these days, Pigeons have provided a grab-bag of grab-bags, which is another way of saying that They Sweetheartstammers acts as a longitudinal cross-section of experimental pop’s ever-morphing instinct to describe the growing pile of Benjaminian debris. The noodles aren’t so bland or patronizing when you realize it was one generation’s way to represent the inscrutable prong-thicket of the future. In another era, the spectre led to the blurry, Gothic guitar of “Behind the Reeds”; in another, it led to the chugging wah of “Chances” or the tape hiss of “Coquille”; and if the pedal-point abyss of “The Welcome” seems any more enticing, it’s mere cohort effect. Altogether, listening to the album feels weirdly like listening to anything from that cluster of 1960s West Coast art/pop/experimental bands like United States of America and Fifty Foot Hose, whose conscious fusion of a number of musical traditions rendered their eventual legacy unstable and their music’s layers ‘dated’ to wildly different degrees.

If you think the whole ‘grab-bag of grab-bags’ thing doesn’t bode well for organization and arc, you’d be right, and maybe that’s the necessary trade-off for creating an album that seems to be simultaneously commenting on and actively inhabiting the past. But it’s also where they trip up: the album itself notwithstanding, these guys aren’t actually literally from the past and therefore don’t have the benefit of those historico-contextual confounds that sorta let someone like Joe Byrd off the hook when he frankly seems to be atheoretically fucking around. And since Pigeons’ unique twist on retro-futurism is that they reproduce only the bleakest (rather than the most colorful or optimistic) imaginations of the past, they really can’t afford moments like the sagging midriff of the six-minute “Tout Nulle Part” so early in the album: no quantity of ethereal spoken-word French (tellingly, “peut-être, peut-être,” like a nervous French chef) can hide that they’re still quite actively searching for an identity.

That’s great: I don’t mean to lambast their musical-developmental path, but this was their third prominent full-length in like 18 months (their limited-cassette discography goes back several years further), and there’s enough superfluous, unadorned acoustic guitar to suggest that they’re a little nervous about starving their art. Plus, those moments of precision — the way the kitsch-tastic mandolin in “Dead Echo” rattles, halts, and sidesteps the drums’ spiraling drops; or the unresolving piano in “Coquille” — turn their gloom into a steely-eyed thing that pierces history at will. Chronicling the dread of the 20th century should feel precarious, a project always on the verge of eruption or topple, and if that dread is taken for granted or sloppily appropriated, if that dread at any point comes off as having been silly or melodramatic, then it’s no different from memory and is destined to repeat itself. But Pigeons are on the cusp of some neat universalistic thread that’ll tauten when they fully respect the histrionic past and when their audience fully respects them — a spell that every listener deserves to witness, and that no listener deserves to witness broken.

Links: Pigeons - Soft Abuse

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