Surprisingly, not everyone living in San Diego has heard (as in listened to) resident band Pinback. Just the other day, a friend asked me (music critic and knower of these things) what they’re like. It’s a tough question: Often the thing you like so much about a band is the one thing you can’t put into words. Pinback’s 1999 self-titled debut and 2001’s Blue Screen Life were intricate and refreshing, they weren’t really about anything. Like a “blue screen,” Pinback has been described as a kind of emotional canvas for whatever lick or lyric resonates most with the listener. But Summer in Abaddon, the band’s third full-length and Touch and Go debut, finds Pinback slightly more evolved, not as a band with a message, but one that’s chiseled through previous work to gain a better sense of how to project their self-awareness.
Tracks begotten in deep bass tones and dark subdued rhythms are rounded out by bouncy refrains and slower, more reflective time changes. The program runs high and low, but is never overcome by its ambition; everything from Pinback’s infectious vocal refrains and trademark bass work (meticulously chorded by co-founder Armisted Burnwell Smith IV, aka Zach, also a member of 3 Mile Pilot) to alternating layers of obscure, restrained lyrics reflect a range of extremes often difficult to arrange into a more finished sound.
Consistent with Pinback’s fluid agenda, Summer in Abaddon is a very complete release, albeit somewhat heavier and more fatalistic than their previous two albums. (Literally translated, Abaddon means destruction, ruin, or perdition.) A dreamy, bubbling bass line ejects from the spiked refrain in “Sender,” though the fragmented lyrics reveal a more obscured meaning: “Shoes crack where you walk/ Settle down/ Inside/ Outside/ Amazing/ Cut it back/ Get in some clean fresh air.” On its heels, “Syracuse” launches into more of the same as Rob Crow and Smith alternate: “I step down into sand/ Water carries us from here/ I’m fightin’ this assignment/ I’m wishin’ we fall into the well/ I’m wishin’ we fall into the world.”
The lyrics may seem at first a random assemblage of thoughts and ideas, but there is an exchange happening between what is said and what is not. Songs like “Blood’s on Fire” and “AFK” waver between complex vocal interplay and strong anthemic refrains to create a space for carefully chosen words to bounce off of. While leaving enough room for interpretation, this relationship helps to define Summer in Abaddon as the exchange between song and lyric is focused, carefully planned, and perhaps a more honest reflection of Pinback than ever before.
Pinback’s rotating cast members are all famously engaged in compartmentalized lives, involved in various side projects and recording schedules within an intimate SoCal indie scene. But they’ve still managed to produce an engaging picture of life the way they see and hear it — vague, interesting, and hard to describe. Pinback is still whatever you want it to be, but it now appears they are the way they want it to be, too.