Released: September 23, 2008
Label: Hardly Art Records
By Will Butler
Here’s a combination you don’t hear too often: an oboe, a sitar, and a lo-fi folk band. However, classifying Seattle’s The Pica Beats as a folk band just doesn’t seem quite accurate, as they seem to have invented their own sub-genre. It certainly speaks to the band’s creativity and ambitiousness, but how does their album actually sound?
Overall, it’s not a bad effort, but there are so many strong points offset by saddening weaknesses that one could feel that there is some potential wasted here. The instrumentation and song structure is low-key, yet creative and enjoyable. Combining an oboe, a sitar, alternating instances of indie and folk drumming, piano, acoustic guitar and the occasional electric guitar cameo is not an easy task, but the Pica Beats pull it off beautifully. “Beating Back the Claws of the Cold” could hold its own if it was an entirely instrumental album. A good example of this is the song “Martine, As Heavy Lifter,” an instrumental masterpiece that wonderfully combines an authentic indie acoustic feel and a sitar.
The lyrics are also thought provoking and original, such as gently mocking the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra in the first song. There is not a trite moment in the entire album, and lead singer/songwriter Ryan Barrett deserves major credit for his lyrical prowess. Unfortunately, the vocals are what keep this album from being truly great. While a folk-type band usually allows room for a little bit of error in singing to provide a more authentic feel to the music, it sadly can be a major detractor on “Beating Back.” One can tell that Barrett is trying his best throughout the album, and despite his occasional off-key tendencies the CD could still be a very good effort if the backup vocals had been phased back or eliminated. While occasionally the backups are rightly used to create a haunting mood through intentional dissonance, when they’re singing melodies behind Barrett the outcome is usually cringe inducing. One should look no further than the first song as an example of the backup vocals at its worst; it could have been one of the better songs on the album, but in its current form it’s tough to get through.
Despite these drawbacks, “Beating Back” is still worth a listen. Recommended songs would be “Beating Back The Claws Of The Cold,” “Cognac and Rum,” “Hope Was Not A Smith Family Tradition,” and “Hikikomori and the Rental Sisters” as well as “Martine, As Heavy Lifter” mentioned earlier.