Pink Mountaintops Outside Love

[Jagjaguwar; 2009]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: rock, alt-country
Others: M. Ward, Black Mountain

Estimating the overall significance of any one album’s cover art can prove to be an especially tricky endeavor. Consider that a certain depiction is appointed to adorn a record’s front sleeve, housing years’ worth of labor, and, by extension, this depiction will hold forever in the mind of the listener a visual association with the music. This would then seem a task not taken too airily by the artist. And fittingly, our more deified albums have arguably retained their prolonged distinction as important pop cultural artifacts – or at least have enjoyed the hulking mythos linked to their history – due in part to the easily identifiable images festooning their liner notes. After all, had visual artist Richard Hamilton not submitted his notoriously plain representation, we wouldn’t really have The White Album; we’d just be referring to The Beatles’ 1968 double album by its proper, eponymous title.

As it is, one cursory glance at the photograph gracing Outside Love, Pink Mountaintops’ disputably first full-length (by Wikipedia standards, 2006’s seven-song Axis of Evol would be considered a mini-LP, duh), will reveal that the band bears an especially perspicacious sensitivity to this principle. A novel fitted with the chintzy glitz of any mass market bestseller? To perhaps soon be relegated to a dime store shelf accommodating umpteen copies of past books by the same author? Pillowed amidst the riffles of a satiny overlay?

All considered, to suggest that principal songwriter Stephen McBean didn’t just slap across this CD the first JPEG that tickled his fancy would be to understate the band’s sheer sidestepping of that generally admired art known as subtlety. Granted, the images chosen for albums are often left unexplained (which, some would of course propound, accords with the personally interpretative response that the album as a whole beckons), but there’s no mistaking the thrust here. Dripping with irony, Outside Love rivals the cover of The Soundtrack of Our Lives’ Communion for this year’s most biting social commentary.

Unfortunately, the contents within bear only a smidgen of the provocation that the dust jacket unblushingly exudes. Though no one is calling this a concept album, with Outside Love McBean has descended from his throwback, psychedelic, granola rock Black Mountain outfit and has impregnated his new material with the agonizing of the common man, stringing together a collection of songs well-endowed with the overarching theme of love. But despite a fairly thorough exposition of that most complicated abstraction, McBean and co-writer A Silver Mt. Zion violinist Sophie Trudeau (having collaborated on seven of the ten songs) relate their findings with a perplexing bipolarity of casual offhandedness and abstruse metaphors.

One knows by now, of course, that a Pink Mountaintops record is not approached with the hopes of assuaging a jones for innovation. But McBean has always done what he does well, and after listening to the conviction with which he and his other band sledgehammered out “Tyrants” last year, one can’t help but wonder why he sounds so irrevocably bored. Responding in his raggedy pitch to an unwavering chorus – seemingly resounding from an opposite mountain peak – inquiring, “How deep is your love?, he admits, “Mine was cheap/ And made of plastic/ Full of holes/ To stick fingers.” With similar lack of inspiration, he sings in the drowsy “Vampire,” “You can suck out the blood/ But you can’t kill the heart of my love.” In “And I Thank You,” a little tune that sounds unnervingly worthy of a shout-out from a clubby presenter at the next Country Music Awards, McBean has stopped calling “that woman” his wife. That the most obnoxious song, “Come Down,” is also the shortest almost seems like pointed self-mockery: Pink Mountaintops can stand it no more than the listener.

But what to do with those few occasions when McBean doesn’t happen to be responding with such dismal lethargy? Again, the listener is driven to a simple shake of the head, this time wondering if Pink Mountaintops even care whether or not the rest of us can decipher what’s being talking about. The title track, rife with eschatological imagery, is, er, pretty in its haunting, elegiac tone, as is “While We Were Dreaming.” But good luck trying to obtain a valuable little gobbet of insight from either. Pink Mountaintops can’t be blamed for failing to demystify anything, but by allotting a sizable consideration to the complexities of a concept often sung about (but, granted, rarely understood), one can’t help but expect some wedge of thought to chew over. But after 42 minutes, we’ve got nothing.

To the band’s credit, nothing about Outside Love sounds recycled. This in itself is an achievement given the topic on which the record predominantly focuses. That sarcastic cover up there alludes to it: love, that indescribable thing, has been simultaneously revered, cheapened, and sung about more than anything else. Essentially, the band only seems to have bit off a little more than could be chewed, and Outside Love feels like a slight misstep.

1. Axis: Thrones Of Love
2. Execution
3. While You Were Dreaming
4. Vampire
5. Holiday
6. Come Down
7. Outside Love
8. And I Thank You
9. The Gayest Of Sunbeams
10. Closer To Heaven

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