Let's say you're a young person, maybe between the ages of 19 and 26, and you've finished school and you've moved to a new city and you're happily in the process of finding your way around the world, maybe working a job, maybe not, maybe riding a bike, maybe driving a car. Maybe you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and maybe you're in love with him or her.
And maybe he or she is in love with you. And maybe your mom or dad, or maybe both, come to visit you one day in your new city in your small apartment, and they ask you how you're doing in this small apartment in this new city, and how the job hunt (or the job) is going, and you don't really know, so you wonder how to explain the quiet but dynamic contours of your life to your mom and dad who wish you had health insurance and who make genuine attempts to understand you now because they used to. You wouldn't, of course, but instead of fidgeting and making a chart and answering, you could play them Blue Screen Life, the new album by the San Diego duo Pinback, a band that probably better than any other right now captures the ineffable ebb and flow of the lives of people your age.
They almost do it by not trying to. Pinback formed in 1998 when Southern Californian scenesters Zach Smith, who had played in the popular indie-rock outfit Three Mile Pilot, and Rob Crow, who's led a series of curious pop bands such as Heavy Vegetable and Thingy, found themselves stumbling into it. "We knew each other from previous bands," Smith says on the phone from his San Diego home, "from playing together a lot at shows and stuff. We were already friends, and we'd always talked about playing music but never went ahead with it--we were too busy because of our other bands. When we finally did start, it was more like an afterthought--we didn't plan it."
Pinback with Mandarin
Gypsy Tea Room
He explains that, at the time, he was busy extracting himself from an ill-advised Geffen contract Three Mile Pilot had entered, one that lasted a single album (1995's The Chief Assassin to the Sinister) and forecasted the end of the band, which eventually splintered into Pinback and the dark chamber-indie ensemble the Black Heart Procession. "I was just getting back to wanting to write music and not dealing with the business bullshit that was interfering with me a lot. So I started writing stuff randomly and invited Rob over and we started making songs together, not planning on putting any of it out. It was just for fun, but it got to the point where we had enough to make a record."
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The resultant self-titled effort spearheaded the movement currently sweeping underground American indie-rock: formerly volume-fetishizing exhibitionists (let's say you between the ages of 15 and 19, for example) turning their backs on the spectacle of the loud rock band and embracing the quiet pleasures of home recording. This is where explaining yourself to your parents comes in: Pinback, released in 1998, sounded like an album made between trips to the campus bookstore (where you've worked since graduating three years ago), like what you hear standing in line waiting to pay your electricity bill because you forgot to mail it in, like ambition compressed down into the little struggles you consider every day when you're not saving the world or orchestrating an IPO. Easily the most casual-sounding record of its time, it gently introduced a new chapter in D.I.Y. philosophy, where technology becomes affordable to the average musician and a previous level of understated sophistication eases into reach.
That's what impresses about Blue Screen Life, a cycle of a dozen songs recorded at home with guitars and basses and drum loops and keyboards and a closetful of tambourine-type things that delicately ricochets between pure-pop melody, bedroom-electronica texture and old-vinyl ambience. For music as loose and as malleable as Pinback's, the songs are amazingly well-constructed: "Penelope" floats on a stratum of prickly guitar arpeggios and bear-hug organ, while handclaps march by and a handsome Motown bass line undergirds the structure. (Wondering why you're playing a record instead of talking to them, your parents would appreciate the way the bass darts between the vocal lines without even realizing it.)
All the songs are like that, too, lovingly assembled with close attention to their architecture and the interaction of parts, the unflappable feng shui that sounds so refreshing after a decade of liberating but often ramshackle lo-fi rock. In the way it suggests that work isn't a bad thing if it's applied toward a worthy end, it's homemade music that's musical in much the same way you as a young person find yourself attempting to live down the memories of the slacker archetype: You don't mind your computer-programming job, but you're really psyched about the new Web-design start-up you sunk your graduation money into. Talking to Smith, you get the impression he feels the same way about Pinback, and you wonder if his parents see where he's coming from.
"The difference [between our old bands and Pinback] is that we don't sit together with four people in a band and play big amplifiers and work out some kind of song," he explains. "I was upset with labels and just wanted to do my own thing--I just wanted to record myself and do the thing. That's how Pinback works: It's just two guys sitting in a living room just laying down stuff." He laughs, and you realize his parents are as confused as yours. "Sometimes it makes it complicated, but it's supposed to be simple. You know, the computer crashes--that's never happened before. Before we just dealt with broken instrument cables."