The 90 Day Men’s third full-length, Panda Park, finds the St. Louis-via-Chicago quartet pushing the piano-prog, flute-rock envelope. And this is not an easy envelope to push: Lots of things can go wrong. You could start wearing Peter Pan tights like Jethro Tull. You could outfit your band in white robes. You could take yourself way too seriously.
The band’s challenging, syncopated songs have grown considerably from their last compelling LP, 2002’s To Everybody; by all accounts, their increased breadth is successful. The band is bold in its choices, unapologetically constructing jammy arrangements (four of the seven songs top the five-minute mark) imbued with psychedelic flourishes and obscure lyrics upon a foundation of piano. This may sound like an unruly (or masturbatory) combination, but hats off to keyboardist Andy Lansangan — his piano work fits surprisingly well amidst bassist Rob Lowe and guitarist Brian Case’s electronics and Cayce Key’s aggressive drums.
But then there are the troublesome vocals.
To be clear: Panda Park is an uplifting, strong and curious album by well-trained players. But, while you are being summoned skyward by 90 Day Men’s skillfully developed structures, you find your journey occasionally interrupted by pesky, discordant harpies in the form of abrasively whiny or comically exaggerated vocals. Proof of the former: The opening “Even Time Ghost Can’t Stop Wagner” is plagued by the appearance of a Jeff Buckley-ish falsetto. Proof of the latter: If meant to be a parody, the vibrato-heavy vocals on “Silver and Snow” would be hilarious. But I suspect they are not: Panda Park conveys a mature sincerity throughout its remaining tracks.
And they use these tracks ambitiously, compressing a good deal in a conservative amount of space — Panda Park clocks in at about 34 minutes. Consider a few of its gems: The spaced-out atmospheres built during the first four minutes of the echo-heavy “Night Birds,” the beautiful progressions of “Chronological Disorder,” the restrained vocals and rising electro-swirl of “When Your Luck Runs Out,” the shimmying drums of “Sequel,” and the ominous piano melody, bass line and guitar shrieks on “Too Late Or Too Dead.”
In Panda Park, 90 Day Men have created an album that (despite a couple of baffling vocal treatments) further secures the group’s position at the forefront of its own genre-defying realm.