Review: “Phoenix” by Pedro The Lion

“Phoenix” successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.

FFO: Jeremy Enigk, Mineral, 90’s Alt. Rock

“But I remember what it was like / astride my yellow bike / first freedom, second life / all the places I could ride / Leaving early, packing light / that little ache inside / my kingdom for someone to ride with.” 

I knew very little about Pedro The Lion when I first heard these lines over the weekend.  My only experience with the late 90’s legend was a casual listen of 2004’s Achilles Heel, which I listened to with a good friend who loves the band.  My interest was piqued enough that when I discovered that indie-rock mastermind David Bazan was releasing his first album in fifteen years under the his old moniker “Pedro The Lion” (he has released under his own name since then), I decided to give Phoenix a listen with very little context for the projects’ long life span.

Jumping in on a new album from an artist decades into their career can feel like a daunting venture, but as it turns out, the album requires little-to-no context to enjoy.  I was instantly hooked on the first full song, “Yellow Bike.”  Everything about it instantly felt nostalgic to me . . . the guitar chords, thudding drums, Bazan’s worn, passionate voice that somehow calls to mind the bluesy tones of Randy Newman.  Through the image of his childhood bike, Bazan beautifully and simply ties his six-year-old self to his present day, forty-three-year-old self; it is an ode to freedom, and a yearning for companionship and belonging within it.  The closing chorus subtly changes the last line from “my kingdom for someone to ride with,” to “I’d trade my kingdom for someone to ride with,” exemplifying masterful songwriting, showing how the simple addition of two words can powerfully change the direction and meaning of a song. 

The album continues this reflective thread on later tracks, painting vivid images of childhood and connecting them firmly to the present moment.  In the song “Model Homes,” Bazan turns memories of house shopping with his parents to the adult longing for change, “Tired of where we live / hoping that it’s not if, but when / when will the wait be over?”  This motif is accomplished perhaps most memorably on “Circle K,” where Bazan reminisces on childhood overspending at the convenience store as if it were a prophesy, with a simplicity that denies heavy-handedness, “I spent it all at Circle K / and the good Lord smiled and looked the other way.” 

Sonically, Phoenix is a pretty standard rock album, which suits the ballad-like story telling very well.  On “Black Canyon,” the haunting tale of a man’s gruesome death under an eighteen-wheeler is punctuated by dissonant guitar chords as pounding toms underline the track, while the chorus jumps out like a stadium rock song.  The album’s big guitars and gritty bass could be played in massive arenas or small rock clubs; it does not sound underground, but not so produced that it feels phony. 

For as strong as the highlights are, there are some duller moments that don’t stick out as readily, making the album feel slightly uneven.  Songs like “All Seeing Eye” towards the end of the record (while brief) drags on a bit, as does the repetition of the simplistic chorus in “My Phoenix.”  They are not bad songs, but compared to the richness of the others, play out as obvious weaker-links. 

 The title Phoenix carries not only the mythical imagery of rebirth but also the name of the city where Bazan grew up.  This feels appropriate in both senses, as it seems to signify a new era in Bazan’s career that is firmly rooted in memories of the past with time-worn songwriting that pulls the two together quite well.  It successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.

“We could write me some reminders, I’d memorize them / I could sing them to myself and whoever’s listening / I could put them on a record about my hometown / sitting here with pen and paper, I’m listening now.” – “Quietest Friend”

Rating: 7.7 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums, see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Polyvinyl Records

Our Favorite Musical Moments of 2018

 

This week is our year in review week at Not a Sound and we wanted to try celebrating a few things that don’t get celebrated enough. Both of our editors are musicians and/or songwriters outside of the blog and are passionate about the creative craft that goes into making good music. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to do a pair of columns celebrating the craft of music rather than just the whole finished product. In the last article we basically just wanted to geek out about a few of our favorite lyrics from releases in 2018. In this one we want to share some of favorite musical moments from 2018. We hope you enjoy these songs as much as we do!

The Offensively Heavy Chorus Riff in “Whispers Among Us” by Rolo Tomassi

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On an album that is definitely not your father’s metal album, Rolo Tomassi pull off incredible cinematic moments, beautiful jazz sections, and lush synth washes, but it was not the most experimental moment on the album that first caught my attention, rather it was exactly what I came for: an obscenely heavy riff. Usually when a band tries to out-heavy themselves it comes off somewhat comical, satisfying, but in a way that makes you think “oh I can’t believe they did that.” The chorus of “Whispers Among Us” manages the incredibly difficult task of landing a riff that is unthinkably heavy, but contextualized in a way that it isn’t in the least bit comical. Instead it hits like a falling building, catching the listener unsuspecting and burying them before they know what hit them.

The Classic, Disney-esque Strings in “Window” by Noname

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Though Noname’s newest offering is led primarily by her talented lyricism, it is also an album full of creative arrangement choices. Perhaps one of the most ear-catching is the introduction to “Window”, which features a beautiful, cinematic string section that can only be prepared to the opening of a fairy-tale or a classic Disney movie.

The Transitions From “On Watch II” to “E.D.” to “The Author” on Slow Mass’s “On Watch”

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Slow Mass’s newest record might be the most underrated album of 2018, due in large part to their mastery of dynamic movement both in songs and between them. One of the most incredible moments on the album comes as the interlude “On Watch II” crescendos into the frenetic “E.D.”, which is more than doubly as heavy as anything previous on the album, which itself fizzles out after only a minute into the reserved track “The Author.” It happens so quickly and from so out of left field that it almost demands you replay it to make sure you didn’t imagine it.

The Jarring Beat Changes on “SICKO MODE” by Travis Scott feat. Drake

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“Sicko Mode” is the best song off 2018’s Astroworld.  In an album full of hits, it stands above the others as the main attraction.  Between the multiple beat changes and catchy (if uncomplicated) flows from Scott and Drake, the song feels like a thrilling rollercoaster, the kind where you’re ready to ride again as soon as you get off.

The Rock n’ Roll Ecstasy of “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” by KIDS SEE GHOSTS

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To those only marginally familiar with their careers, it may seem unlikely that Kanye West and Kid Cudi created one of the most explosive rock jams of the year.  But indeed – it happened.  The crushing guitar chords and booming drums clash gorgeously with Kanye’s yelpy singing, while Cudi’s bass-heavy voice sounds like it could swallow up the world.  Add in the gorgeous harmonies provided by Ty Dolla $ign during the breaks, and you have the type of song that you’ll be turning up to max volume over and over again.

The Psychedelic Mirage of “Nowhere2go” by Earl Sweatshirt

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The first single off of Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs is a beautiful hallucination of sound.  There is so much going on, so much to unpack during its 1:53 run time. Earl raps over a disorienting yet infectious beat, as layer upon layer of melodic samples whirl around him.  It is gorgeous and exhilarating, the type of song that begs to be longer.  The sounds themselves are so beautiful that it is easy to forget that Earl is actually saying words here; his voice sounds like just another instrument in the mix.