Friday, January 18, 2019

Pedro The Lion, Phoenix, 2019

Album Review

By Yawn Mower

[When I got my advance copy of Phoenix, the first Pedro The Lion album in 15 years, I turned to our good pals in Yawn Mower. Mike and Biff are both big fans of David Bazan's work, and I thought it would be cool to get their take on the new record.]


Let me start by saying this. If you are a fan of David Bazan and the guitar-driven songs he has written with any outfit, then you will enjoy Phoenix. That being said...

Phoenix is a melancholy, nostalgic trip through the childhood of Bazan or maybe another character, but probably Bazan. I wonder if Bazan wrote the songs on Phoenix in one sitting or if he stockpiled songs over time that would make sense together and bring back the Pedro The Lion moniker. It doesn't matter what name Bazan's songs are filed under, you know it's Bazan as soon as he starts singing, which he alluded to in a recent NPR Tiny Desk session.

When listening to the album on headphones, I got almost a Stranger Things vibe, with a kid cruising through his neighborhood of prefab houses on his yellow BMX bike, fresh off mowing his neighbor's lawn for money to spend on snacks at the local convenience store. There are heavy suburban vibes throughout the record.

The song "Circle K," starts off with the lyrics, "Got a little allowance from doing chores. Saving up for a Santa Cruz skateboard." Whether you grew up in the era of Dogtown, Santa Cruz, Birdhouse, Girl or Krooked, this lyric resonates with being a child and saving up for the things you saw in catalogs. A couple of years ago, I purchased a complete Santa Cruz Screaming Hand skate deck with matching Slimeball wheels and Independent Trucks just because I had the $99 to do it. It hangs proudly in my garage.

The production of this record is reminiscent of the days of Achilles Heel and Strange Negotiations. The telecaster through a great tube amp sound is there as are some weird synth tones. The album also flows a little faster than the slow honey of recent albums Blanco and Care.

As I was listening to "Piano Bench," I could see a young kid admiring his mom on the church organ; and it brought back memories of the church I went to as a kid. I was in a church choir as a kid and remember the impact the great sound of the organ makes through those big pipes on the wall. But, as you get older, the pipes aren't as big as they seemed to be back then.

The idea of God is not as at the forefront on this record as it had been in previous records. It's there, though, watching in the sky as Bazan cruises down the hills of his hometown.

"Leaving the Valley" is a great way to end the album. I believe it's a song about Bazan growing up and leaving his town to play shows in far-off towns. Then, the last words of the record are words from his Curse Your Branches asking, "IF I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap, after graduation would there be no turning back?" a prequel to the question he asks on Curse Your Branches. It's like you could listen to Phoenix at the beginning of Bazan's catalog, and it would make total sense; but it almost makes more sense at this point in his career. 


When I was 17, I went on a two-week mission trip to Lima, Peru. Ahead of our trip, they had told us we could only bring Christian CDs to listen to. My mother brought me to the closest music shop to browse the Christian section for anything worthy of my time. I was aware of MXPX, Reliant K, and Five Iron Frenzy; but nothing all that serious or profound. I spotted a black and white album cover featuring a minimalistic drum kit. Most of the person behind the kit was cropped out and blurry. It seemed like such an underwhelming image to use to represent an album, but that was enough to intrigue me. Then I saw that it was on Jade Tree Records, so I felt like I was cheating the Christian-music-only rule at first glance. It's Hard to Find a Friend is a bold proclamation to make in general, never mind calling your album that. It all just seemed so spot on for me at the moment. I left for that trip unaware of anything Pedro-related, but I came home two weeks later with (still to this day) one of my all-time favorite albums. I have been a die-hard David Bazan fan ever since.

Phoenix makes mentions of religion in a positive enough light throughout to call this a Pedro album, but it doesn't take the side of religion like you'd come to expect from this project. Rather, it recalls it as a plot-point in life. The hurt and wear on Bazan's voice is still present like any of his solo releases, but the delivery is something familiar and nostalgic worthy of the old moniker. Dave on bass helps solidify the line-up of newcomers who accurately give us that old Pedro feel. Guitars are very sparse with a lot of bass counter melodies slipped in tastefully throughout the album. There are also plenty of points that feel minimalistic for these delicate moments, which is always a nice plate to serve some thoughtful lyrics on.

Dave had to get to this point in life to be able to look back at the past in such a way. Phoenix feels like a period piece but from a new lens. His entire catalog coincides with some point of any former churchgoer's journey. This is the reflective old soul who is finally able to see the value in his upbringing. It's led him here. Wherever he lands it's because of the path he started at. The details aren't important; the moments / memories are. We aren't all thankful for the hateful things associated with religion, but we're thankful for the parables that these fables draw to our own lives AND for the knowledge gained from being around to witness, firsthand, the ignorance a church can breed. That is what helps us as we grow up and grow apart from that mentality. Now, we're able to look back on a childhood long ago with a fresh pallet that makes it all easier to swallow, taking away these informative moments we hang onto and cherish. "Piano Bench" feels like we leave the album to listen in on a service with the Bazan family. The progression is straight from any church song. The Headphones-esque synth setting reminiscent of any 80s / 90s keyboard the music committee sprung for with some Sunday's offerings.

Lines like "first freedom, second life" in "Yellow Bike" or "got a little allowance for doing chores" in "Circle K" take us back to these moments of our youth where we couldn't grasp much outside our little worlds. The emotions we have but can't describe. The desires we have that turn out to be menial and pointless within a few years. These are all the things that define our little perspectives at that age, and it was a nice treat to be reminded of it all over again through one of my favorite musical vehicles. I lived the story of "Model Homes" as a kid. When times were tough, we'd go look at model homes for an outing post-church. He perfectly captures the feeling of a child hating the town they lived in or the block they lived on. Being excited at the prospect of a major life change. "I wanna not be lonely" is truly chilling coming from this man's voice. "When will the wait be over" feels more like "When will the weight be over" in context.

"Tracing The Grid," referencing the memorizing of directions around town or verses of songs you'd be listening to while driving, all conjure up a sensations in my chest that make my eyes well up. The second half of "Yellow Bike" calling back to times of "leaving early, packing light" and being "in love with every stretch of road" at a time when you're first able to explore the world independently. You don't forget the first song you chose to listen to on your first solo drive home from the DMV (At The Drive In's cover of The Smiths' "This Night Has Opened My Eyes" live on BBC). I still take wrong turns sometimes to finish whatever track comes on shuffle before eventually ending up someplace where my tunes won't be crankin'. This album is the coming-of-age period where you meet new types of people you haven't normally been exposed to living in these sheltered scenarios. Lines like "some folks are loners and you learn from them" parallel the suicide on "Black Canyon." Being able to tell a side story about such a mangled body beneath an 18-wheeler within the context of an album mostly about growing up is artful.

The panned delayed guitar intro of "All Seeing Eye" bringing back the feeling of being removed from the album similar to "Piano Bench." Gets choppy, some fake drums pop in making it feel more like Blanco. Nice tonal call back to previous work like Headphones with the bass synth on the chorus kicking it up a sonic notch. Swelling out, the track is a  good pallet cleanse before the 6-minute closing track, "Leaving The Valley." This song (and many on the album) feels like Tom Petty all day. Moving is a tough thing. Long stretches of road while  "wipers wave a long goodbye," "how will you know you're finally home?" with the Frank-Ocean-like beat switch. It feels uncomfortable. Like moving does. Like leaving does. Like saying goodbye does. This feels full of tension. Takes a minute to find our footing as listeners. The bass and drums are the floorboards that finally rise to our feet, letting us stop floundering with our necks barely above the surface. "After graduation, there'll be no going back" with a staggering of guitars slowly falling off time and out of sync. More open strings rattling than previous parts. Not the musical resolve I was expecting, much like life doesn't always go as planned.

I'm thankful for every track that surfaces with Bazan's name attached to it, but the joy of hearing Pedro The Lion again is uncanny. Phoenix did everything I needed it to for it to be worthy of the former title. It feels like he didn't miss a beat from where Achilles Heel left us off in Pedro's journey. I was made aware of memories I forgot all about throughout this album. It was like catching up with an old friend now that we're both older and wiser. The grooves throughout the album reminded me a lot of Strange Negotiations, which, up until this point, has been my favorite of Bazan's catalog. Phoenix is a a perfect partner to the complexity of that album. I'm happy Dave is finally getting the well-earned, and long-overdue attention we die-hards have been waiting for. Thank the universe for the gift that is David Bazan and his band Pedro The Lion. Thanks for adding another chapter into our life's soundtrack. (A N D thanks for getting meta at the end of "Quietest Friend!" Nerds love that shit on that Dan Harmon tip).

Phoenix is out now on Polyvinyl.

Yawn Mower's Could Eat, Would Sleep is out now on Mint 400 Records.

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