Wednesday, November 26, 2008

PAS/CAL. I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura (Le Grand Magistery, 2008)

"Short pants are a sign of weakness/ Sunglasses hide a mental vacuum/ The summer is almost here."

The debut LP (following a handful of EPs stretching back to 2002) from Detroit's PAS/CAL is one of the most pleasant surprises of recent memory, an irresistible collection of lovingly crafted, meticulously constructed chamber pop masterpieces. These guys never met a la-la-la, a whoa-oh-oh, or a handclap they didn't like, and have clearly invested a deep love of all things major-key into these grand mini-epics, combining a multi-instrumental kitchen-sink philosophy with an inborn knowledge of what it means to rock one's socks off. These songs are intricate without being precious, pretty without being delicate, joyous without being toothless. It's a day at the beach with a vicious undertow. And it's effing great.

From the initial piano chords of I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura's opening volley "The Truth Behind All The Vogues She Sold," we know we've stumbled onto something pretty special. It's an elegant, beautifully arranged song which uses subtle tempo and tonal shifts to build into a ruthlessly tuneful anthem that brings slashing guitars into the mix at the 3:12 mark to carry the song through to its rousing conclusion.

Next up is "You Were Too Old For Me," one of the best songs I've heard in 2008 from anybody. Over gently choppy rhythm guitar swagger, PAS/CAL vocalist Casimer Pascal weaves a vocal hook vehement in its catchiness, violent in its crusade to be memorable. The track is a tour-de-force of multipart songcraft; at the excellent bridge, Pascal croons, "Everybody needs someone they can pray to/ Everybody needs the one thing that's untouchable," following up with the fondly mocking, "And I've got you, and if anything I know is true/ You ain't goin' anywhere soon." The delivery is flawless, and shines with an almost blinding pop perfection. It's enough to elicit the most overwrought, breathless hyperbole.

You Were Too Old For Me

Though it's a tall order to live up to the impeccable melodiousness of "You Were Too Old For Me," PAS/CAL try their best over the course of the album's remaining ten tracks, and do a pretty admirable job. "Summer is Almost Here" is a jaunty, sun-dappled ode to the hottest season shot through with pleasantly snarky lyrics and welcome bursts of prickly guitars. "Glorious Ballad of the Ignored" finds the band providing a stable platform for the slightly sour lilt of Pascal's vocal lines, moving from mid-tempo canter to full-bore gallop and back again without breaking a sweat. "O Honey We're Ridiculous" uses enthusiastically explosive power chords and slamming drums to build one of the more powerful, hard-hitting tracks on I Was Raised. The twisted guitar solos and heavy thump of "Dearest Bernard Living" transform a wistful remembrance into a blustery celebration of knuckle-dusting rawk at the 3:05 mark. The three-song "Suite Cherry" is a sophisticated mini-rock-opera, full of charm, wit, and a dreamy sensibility that stops well short of tiresome. Costello-like burner "Citizen's Army Uniform" brings the album to a biting conclusion, using a buzzy organ and barbed six-string distortion to sharpen the bite even as the melodies go down smooth as honey.

Throwing on I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura for the first time, I wasn't sure what to expect. Little did I know that I was getting ready to hear some of the best songs I've heard in quite some time. For folks who dig the New Pornographers, Beulah, the Minus 5, Stars, and other purveyors of elaborate, next-level pop precision, PAS/CAL are sure to be a welcome discovery. And if this first long player is any sign of things to come, then we should thank our stars and garters for these Motor City maniacs and their high-performance melody machines.