Murder City Devils and At the Drive-In were a pre-millennial two-headed touring beast: lead singers using the rafters of dingy clubs like monkey bars, screaming their voices out every single night. So it’s sad that in the Y2K aftermath half of that equation dissolved into the frustratingly boring Sparta and the even more frustratingly overreaching Mars Volta. Thank god the Devil’s offshoots still singe: Spencer Moody has gone on to impress in many different eclectic projects, and Derek Fudesco continues the positive evolution of Pretty Girls Make Graves on that band’s third album, Elan Vital.
It’s great when an already amazing act suddenly discovers a new instrument. Elliott Smith’s sound entered a higher plane when he started tickling the ivories on XO. For Pretty Girls Make Graves, the new toy is the trumpet. “The Magic Hour” is just that horn rambling ethereally. The coronet shows up again on “Pearls on a Plate,” and it rescues the end of the album from a string of boring tracks on “Bullet Charm.”
Elsewhere there’s more varied instrumentation that might put off purists who thought the best feature of Pretty Girls’ first two albums was the vice-tight guitar precision. “Domino” starts with a funky little piano intro. And “Selling the Wind” is drenched in so much accordion it sounds like a Jewish folk song.
But really, what’s to be expected from a band started by the Murder City Devils’ former bassist? The members of Murder City Devils were brave for even having an organist (Leslie Hardy) in the band, let alone giving her prominent parts. Here, Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Andrea Zollo, who up to this point was the band’s main organist, cedes finger-work duty to new member Leona Marrs and focuses solely on vocals. Marrs picks up the parts nicely. The rollicking “Pyrite Pedestal” shows that Sufjan isn’t the only artist who knows how to employ an ascending chromatic scale to establish a feeling of triumphant uplift. “Pictures of a Night Scene” has Marrs twinkling a line reminiscent of the Halloween theme while drummer Nick Dewitt whispers romantic regrets over top.
Another big step in maturity is that the band members largely handle production by themselves, stepping out from the paternal care of Phil Ek (see: Built to Spill and the Shins). Ek only lends a hand on two tracks: “The Magic Hour” and “Pearls on a Plate.”
Unlike another keyboard-centric act, Mates of State, the members of Pretty Girls Make Graves show a willingness to experiment beyond their signature sound. For that, they’re a valuable asset to indie-dom right now.
Matador Records Web site