REVIEW: Pedal Steel Transmission: In the Winter...
Pedal Steel Transmission: In the Winter, It Makes the Dead Grass Look Green [Cardboard Sangria, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? one more step.
At sixty-nine minutes , the title of In the Winter, It Makes the Dead Grass Look Green is a perfect match for the album's sprawl. Electric crash-folk jerks schizophrenically from one style to another, changing its hair-colour and the intensity of its gaze. The record is long, its personalities manifold, and to understand it properly, one must first examine its component parts.
In the Winter... begins with "Sorted" - a distorted,
Fugazi-meets-Sparklehorse crash that breaks off, half-way through, into the mild cheese of an Aloha- or Tortoise-style fusion jam, xylophones tinkling. This unsettling opening leads into "Self Services Rest", with its trudging, Slobberbone feel: twang sung over a thick-tongued guitar or three. Then the song falls into a pond; water-striders and flies flutter atop and above it, a martial beat swells, and it's a weak-kneed-but-Fratboy-confident Mogwai climax... one that dribbles before being diluted into pastoral art.country noodling.
Things remain dubious even on "I Only Got 1 Hr of Sleep Last Night", where again country folkrock meets Tortoisy jazz fusion, with Neil Young singing college poetry. On "Tweakin' the Bible", however, the disc makes a marked improvement. A mathrock backbone twitches under pedal-steel squeal and Modest Mouse mutterings, then "Para Ella" throws a wide curveball, opening with alt.pop accapella and hillbilly backup. Later, the bits change places - it's lackadaisical country with high, lilting la-dee-da vocals. Suddenly, like jack-boots, drums break through the walls, crashing guitars slam tables over, break vases against the floors. "Her Dream" shows rockabilly honkytonk with a blues guitar solo and a groaning, Weird War voice. The chorus is jumpy and grinning, meeting a Green day march part-way, then doe-see-doe'ing its way into full-out "Hey Jude" singsong, guitars distorting and twisting behind the choir.
"Half as Well" is a return to mellow, like Low at triple-speed, a
call-and-answer with poetic murmurings and a simple xylophone-line. It rises eventually into a shrill mass of post-rock noise: Yo La Tengo on a stormy night when everyone's pissed off. "The Sun Bites His Tongue", on the other hand, is a pathetic attempt at Clem Snide's country-pop melancholia. Voices strain. Guitars chug. Listeners yawn.
"Sandy Toes" is slow-growing country noise. More Neil Young mutters: "Holden face with the golden bars / take the leaves to burn this place I've known." The chorus is smiling and big: "And the sound that you make keeps me away." It becomes clear the band-members play their instruments with superb skill, perhaps even too well - over the top. "Sandy Toes" ends on the same structure with which it begins, the chorus built brighter, stronger, finer. "Sempiternal Tryste Detente" closes the disc with twelve minutes that begin with quiet guitar whispers, John Fahey flickers, and a bored and lazy vocal whine. As the music rises with a stutter of drums, so does the panic of the singer... Then the song falls away to near-silence and we do it again, before slow-gliding to the peace and rest of picked guitar and a lonely pedal steel transmission.
As you can see, Pedal Steel Transmission jerks all over the map, each song a new composition... unburdened and unconcerned by what it's played before. The disc is brilliant at times - so vast and expansive in its sound - but ultimately its breadth makes it less than the sum of its parts. Running in so many different directions, In the Winter... is hard to keep in one's sights, hard to really hear. In pieces, the Chicago foursome cleaves some rich musical landscape, but ultimately the album's lines are too blurred from motion, its individual moments so disparate that ultimately they sound the same.