In theory, the idea of the singer + nothing but acoustic guitar is a great one. Stripping things down to their barest, most exposed elements shows off the foundation of a song, and if a song shakes you to your core in that simple a presentation, you'd better believe it's probably going to sound pretty intense with a full band behind it. Some people (Elliott Smith comes to mind) were masters of this, of displaying that warmth and intimacy and having the song take an entire audience's breath away. Unfortunately, with the wrong performer, acoustic performances can be tedious.
Pinback played Neumos on Tuesday, November 10 with Joe Jack Talcum.
Talcum seemed stiff and much less playful with the audience than one would expect, and it was hard to tell if the lack of energy and general indifference on both sides was his fault or the audiences fault; a good chunk of the arms-crossed all-ages crowd was probably born way after the Milkmen's prime, and I can't really say there are any radio stations that are still championing the Dead Milkmen catalog. Talcum's newer material seemed to still have that same juvenile spirit of the Milkmen's work, and upon listening to the album versions of his songs post-show, they sound much better as fleshed out, full band versions. Talcum has the capability to be a pretty great performer, and writes really funny, weird songs, but could use some other hands behind him to really help elevate him above "guy who writes funny songs that sound like they would be played in a coffee shop" to "holy crap, that's the guy from the Dead Milkmen" status.
The last time I saw Pinback was around 2002 in Lawrence, Kansas. Being a fan of all things Rob Crow (especially the Thingy records) and having Blue Screen Life in pretty heavy rotation, my expectations were ridiculously (and probably unrealistically) high. Both Crow and partner Zach Smith were incredibly sick and in less-than-jovial moods that night, so the energy and vocals suffered a lot, and their airtight vocal melodies are the backbone of Pinback's music. I walked away crushed, taking the show with a grain of salt as much as I could, but still feeling like I had just seen behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz (pardon the Kansas/Oz joke, I've heard 'em all before).
My expectations for Pinback this time were much less stratospheric. Thankfully, Pinback has changed a lot since that show, especially from a presentation standpoint. A giant backdrop behind the band hosted videos synced loosely along with the songs; Images of stingrays swimming alone in the cold depths of the ocean floor were followed by random footage from a campy Buck Rogers-esque show, Japanese exercise/dance videos, and random drawings, snapshots, and lyrics that were typed and scribbled out. Everything about Pinback seems genuinely hand-done (most of their t-shirt and CD artwork is simple scribbles, stick figures, and handwriting), and the video presentation was just as charmingly colorful and unpolished.
While projectors and videos can exist as factors to overcompensate for the band's lack of energy, this absolutely wasn't the case with Pinback. The stage was a clutter of instruments, with all members (aside from former Tanner/No Knife drummer Chris Prescott) switching between guitar, bass, and keyboards. I was grateful to see Crow and Smith in good spirits, and hear these songs rejuvenated, sounding just as warm and lush as they do on their records. Pinback started out as a bedroom pop project between Crow and Smith, so it's great to hear where they're starting to steer their sound as "Pinback, the 5 piece band" versus "Pinback, the two dudes who made records on a shitty PC in their bedroom".
The crowd, reserved and apprehensive during Talcum's set, was buoyant and alive during Pinback's set. All ages crowds can be a blessing or a curse, and this very young crowd was hyped on Pinback from moment one. I saw some of the worst "white indie rock dude cuttin' loose" dancing that I've ever seen in my life (bearded guy in the second row, you know who you are) and Crow seemed especially excited to be playing, hopping around during guitar solos, and looking back mid-song at the videos playing behind the band and laughing.
Smith is the more reserved of the two songwriters and probably the busiest musician on stage, his fingers always frantically scurrying across his bass strings like spiders. Zach Smith's songs tended to lean toward more serious material, relying on layers of keys and Prescott's subtle drumming to churn along. While the ocean has always been a big inspiration in the work of this family of musicians (see Smith's former band Three Mile Pilot, too), Pinback has these divine moments of oceanic tempo, of lazy drifting. Not necessarily still focusing on the "lost at sea" mentality of Three Mile Pilot, Smith's material is much more relaxing and contemplative, like floating on a raft not too far from shore as the ocean ebbs and flows. Crow's songs are generally more playful and sunny, and he is generally the one delivering the "big rock moments" that have a little bit more hardcore influences (but are never balls-out aggressive).
Seeing two singers who are obviously both deeply rooted in San Diego (and it's ocean and sunshine) and seeing where they diverge into their own respective paths is one of the most interesting parts of Pinback's material, as well as watching the two collide mid-song as they build these gorgeous harmonies that are so strikingly different from each other but fit together seamlessly. When the band hit their stride late in their set with "From Nothing to Nowhere", all memories of the show in Kansas were out the window, and Pinback became that incredible band that I had so much hope for. Prescott's drums paced the song, with Crow and Smith weaving in and out of the vocal haze. It was one of those "close your eyes and just feel this for two seconds" moments; Able to rock out, but holding the reins just tight enough to not let things go out of control, pulsing with life and energy and tension but still managing to be soothing and rejuvenating. This was the band I had placed so much faith in. This was the band I had come to see, and I'm glad to see them back.