Thursday, October 21, 2004

Tour Ep '04 Pedro the Lion

Rating: 5

The Tour EP, it seems, has become a sort of Indie Rock Tradition. The venerated Insound Tour Support series are not only interminable, but they command a pretty penny on eBay. In the mid-90’s (remember those days?!) the Champaign-Urbana dwellers, Braid, would have a neatly packaged tour exclusive EP, or 45, for almost every road trip. Conor Oberst can barely walk to the corner store without releasing a 4-song disc of bedroom anthems. So, finally, Pedro the Lion has caught on.

It seems that Pitchfork has a running joke with Pedro the Lion releases: every reviewer really liked the last release, but can’t seem to get into the one in the front of them; the disc they’re reviewing. It’s a pox for Pedro; a nagging terrier that just won’t stop humping their collective leg.

I will unabashedly profess that I am a huge Pedro the Lion fan. I believe that David Bazan knows his way around a lyric. He adroitly treads the fallow and formidable ground of Christianity without a) sounding like a misled Bible Thumper or b) abandoning his moral values. And while his sound has not made any leaps or bounds, it has done something of a microevolution, exploring all the avenues within its cityscape.

Notwithstanding my profession in the previous paragraph, I am disappointed with this 6-song ode to the road.

Randy Newman, Cat Power, and Radiohead. At least there are no Ludacris covers. My checklist for a good cover consists of one criterion: do it better or do it different. The Randy Newman cover is the most successful. In 1972, with the Cold War looming, Newman wrote “Political Science.” With its deftly worded self-deprecation regarding Nuclear War, it was clearly a jewel of a song. Newman sang it with his trademark marbly rasp in a soft cabaret style. And oh my! It was ever so scathing in its tongue-in-cheek verbal assault on America©. With Pedro’s version, which is decidedly apropos of the times, gone are the soft musings of Newman and here to stay are the incendiary tongue-lashings of Bazan. Instead of something that one can easily laugh at, like Newman’s version, Bazan has conjured up a feeling of anger and fright. It succeeds on all fronts by making Newman’s song fresh again.

The Cat Power and Radiohead covers do not fare as well. Chan Marshall’s voice on the original “Metal Heart” is eerie and hurt. The double tracking of the vocals and subdued arpeggio of the guitar provide an ambiance that builds until Chan intones, “Metal heart you’re not hiding/Metal heart you’re not worth a thing.” Bazan blows up the spot from the start. His “Metal Heart” isn’t hiding; it’s right out in the open, making a scene. It’s hurt but instead of retreating, it lashes out. Hardly an improvement, Bazan’s version can barely hold a candle to the original.

As for “Let Down”, the Radiohead cover, it comes off more as an homage to Bazan’s favorite band than a cover. What amazed me was that, until Bazan starts singing, it sounds exactly like the Radiohead version. And even when Bazan starts singing, his voice has the same reverb on it that Thom Yorke had on his. The song isn’t different, and it isn’t an improvement – it is the exact same song as the one Radiohead recorded.

Bazan covers himself on “Transcontinental”, from this year’s Achilles Heel, I Am Always the One Who Calls, from The Only Reason I Feel Secure, and “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”, from Winners Never Quit. All three cuts were recorded live in the studio. “Transcontinental” suffers from an unnecessary “studio mistake” intro (oooh…he said fuck!) and a rather shoddy drumming job by TW Walsh. In the first 20 seconds, I’m bored. Likewise, “I Am Always et cetera et cetera” feels rushed and loses all the softness that made it such a standout track originally.

“Slow and Steady Wins the Race” takes the crown in this case. Bazan successfully updates the acoustic moral tale of right and wrong with a dancehall bass-line and the riding floor-tom synonymous with Pedro the Lion. As Bazan sings, “When I get to heaven/I’ll be greeted warmly” his falsetto reaches way up into the rafters and it’s tough not to believe him.

What makes a Pedro the Lion record is sincerity and conviction. But, aside from “Slow and Steady”, this one lacks both those traits. The songs are good – they’re enjoyable to listen to, but they have no backbone and no real purpose. After listening to this album I ask why. Why release this? Why was this necessary? The only answers I can come up with are “because I can” and “in hindsight, it wasn’t really.”


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