Thursday, November 1, 2007

Live Review: Pinback @ Bimbo's 10/26

by Nate Seltenrich
Thu, Nov 1, 2007 at 5:01 PM

The concept of a strictly studio band may seem pretentious, but certainly lends an air of mystery. What makes a band so good -- or so bad? -- that it can get by without taking its songs on the road? Steely Dan refused to tour for its final six years (until reuniting in 1993), but continued to produce albums that held up under intense scrutiny. Today Steel Dan is considered one of the best rock groups of the '70s.

A case could be made that San Diego act Pinback, which has recorded some of indie rock and emo's cleanest, most flawlessly executed records, would make a fine studio band. Like Steely Dan, Pinback centers on two core members -- Rob Crow and Armistad "Zach" Burwell Smith IV -- and sounds best clinical and cold, not amped-up and loose. Last Friday night at Bimbo's -- the second of two consecutive nights there -- the band proved as much, when inconsistent vocals, modified tempos, and unraveled rhythms threatened the integrity of many of its songs. Pinback is not a poor live band. It's just an amazing studio band, and anyone accustomed to hearing it on record will have a hard time reconciling the difference. At Bimbo's, Rob and Zach may have just been having an off night, but their voices didn't sync up right. Rob's tone was off, a bit too high and thin, while Zach lacked his usual smoothness. It's a minor complaint for just about any other band, but deadly for Pinback. Vocal sounds like doo doo doo and oh-oh, plus abundant vocal harmonizing, are present in almost every song. Silky precision is essential.

Likewise, when the airtight rhythms that propel Pinback's songs don't lock, the effect is more than incidental. A certain magic -- Pinback's very identity -- is compromised. Though some songs fared better than others, the problem persisted throughout the night. With tempo it's the same story. "Penelope," from the 2001 album Blue Screen Life, is one of Pinback's most beautifully steady songs. On Friday night the band played it so fast that it lost all its power. Concertgoers often expect the artist to expand upon studio versions in the live setting; in Pinback's case, you almost want them to sound exactly as they do on record. That would an accomplishment, and an intense experience.

Visually, the band doesn't lend itself well to the stage. Zach's proficient bass playing -- a blend of strumming and finger picking -- is exhilarating to watch, but Pinback's general geekiness, and occasional indifference, overwhelms all. The band's auxiliary keyboardist/bassist/guitarist on Friday appeared bored, confused, stoned out of his mind, or all three. No one expects Pinback to look like rock stars, but the other extreme is just as unappealing. Best, perhaps, to keep them off the stage and allow intrigue to flourish.

Despite these shortcomings, the crowd ate it up. Pinback was good enough to win new fans, and by most counts, that's indeed good enough. Raucous applause and bouncy dancing lasted all night. Favorites like "Loro," "Fortress," "Concrete Seconds," and "AFK," plus new single "Good to Sea," were especially well received. Pinback writes some great songs, no doubt, regardless of how its shows stack up against its albums.

The highlight of the group's stage presence, or clearest indicator of its awkwardness, came when Rob told a joke during a song break. "I heard a good knock-knock joke the other day," he offered humbly. "Knock knock." "Who's there?" the crowd answered. "Penis butt fart." A chuckle came from the crowd. "A five-year-old told it to me," explained Rob.

When fans flooded back out onto the street outside Bimbo's just before midnight, they might've noticed a formidable silver bus hulking out front. This was no ordinary bus, especially for an indie band. This was a massive, gleaming tour bus of the type often reserved for mega bands on reunion tours. What gives? According to Touch and Go Records, the band's label in Chicago, the luxury wheels spring from Rob and Zach's inclination to bring their wives on the road -- and in Rob's case, his kid too.

All the more reason to stick to the studio, guys. Leave the family at home, sell that bus for some rad new equipment, and keep giving us more of what you do so well. Hey, it worked for Steely Dan.

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