There’s a fundamental disagreement here at Hymie’s about whether albums should have the lyrics written out inside the jacket. One of us find it essential, and looks for them as soon as opening an anticipated album. It’s the fastest way to start singing along. The other feels its cheating and would rather listen to an album until the lyrics are memorized, even if it takes a lifetime to figure out what they are.
Either way, there’s something special about learning the lyrics to a favorite album. It’s part of what makes a record collection so comforting because each of your favorites is so much more than a half hour’s entertainment — it’s a welcoming little world with its own language and customs where you can find escape or solace. Whether its Blue when you’re feeling blue or Get Happy!! on a bright day, you can count on them to be the same as always. It’s you who keeps changing.
In a roundabout way this brings up to Sad Face/Glad Face, Pennyroyal’s first album, which took up a residency in our van sometime this spring when it got a CD player. It’s one of those albums you sing along with, even when you haven’t really learned all the words. And try as you may, it’s hard to sing along with Angie Oase, whose accented drawl exudes confidence throughout. In “Wild Iris” she responds to an unexpected breakup with a dismissal (“I won’t fight in your war”) and then there’s “Burn that Fire,” with its awesome guitar line. At one point we’re not sure what the lyric is — or even if its in English — but we love singing along.
And now they’re back, Pennyroyal, the most under-appreciated band working in the Twin Cities right now. Maybe the best. They’ve got a new disc out tomorrow that we’ve already sunk ourselves into for weeks now, and it doesn’t matter that the lyrics are inside the jacket. We know every word.
Just a couple weeks ago we explored our recollections of Lou Reed’s music and even went against his advice (“I only like nostalgia if it’s my own”) to invite Pennyroyal’s Ethan Rutherford to provide a rare guest-written post here on the Hymie’s blog. We included a favorite quote from Lou Reed that has been widely reprinted recently: “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Nobody has the courage to write a song like “Waiting for the Man” anymore but Pennyroyal comes close with “M List,” the high-energy opening track on their second album, Baby I’m Against It.
“M List” is all drive and fervor, but a little larger than the “one chord” song prescribed by Reed. Oase and Rutherford dual harmonicas along the lines of “NOLA (Monday Tuesday),” the standout track from last year’s Places EP which was also on a here-and-gone 7″ single. Opening with “M List” provides more than a indication of the bigger sound the band has created with producer/engineer Ed Ackerson — it feels like a declaration that the album is going to go to places unimagined on Places, the thematic EP we picked as our favorite release of 2012. This new album succeeds because of the surprisingly uncommon marriage of a good story and the means to properly express it.
Nothing in the following eleven tracks returns to the proto-punk feeling of “M List,” but the robust drum sound introduced in its first moments holds the album together as Oase and Rutherford seem to pull it in a different direction with each track. It’s one of the best features of Ackerson’s Flowers Studio. And we can’t think of a better drummer to record there than Pennyroyal’s Jake Mohan, who doesn’t waste a moment or a motion throughout Baby I’m Against It. He seems to work intuitively with bassist William Hoben, whether its the crashing conclusion to “Official Statement” that hints at their explosive, instrumental metal band, Wizard Fight, or the irresistible groove on “Record Machine” that we expect you’ll be hearing on the Current any day now.
Baby I’m Against It does seem “quadrophenic,” if we can imagine that to be a real thing. The album opens with a nod to the Velvets but moves just as easily into the disco side of new wave with “Go Quiet” and “Record Machine” before offering a raucous double-time honky tonk on “Pennyroyal.”
What’s wholly remarkable about the album are the moments you can’t tag with a familiar reference. Pennyroyal’s more confident here than on Sad Face/Glad Face and Places, transcending genres by owning them — that is, “Go Quiet” and “Record Machine” are less new wave than they are Pennyroyal-does-new-wave, and where they touch on VU minimalism or twangy roots it’s on their own terms. This control is really owed to the rhythm section, who lend confidence to songs which are often, ironically, about the search for security, whether in a dead end job or a dead relationship.
Two mid-tempo ballads on that last theme round out the first face of the album on the tender side without touching on vulnerability, first asking if “you really mean it when you look into your heart –”
My heart is heavy
Knows what it can carry, but you –
I don’t think you mean it this time
I’m done with you
– before moving on with the more concise declaration that “the last I had of you is gone.” The two tracks might be handily compared to the Pretenders if Tanya Tucker had taken the lead on Learning to Crawl, or they might be further indication that this is a group that has carved out its own distinctive sound. Hoben and Mohan, having provided a “Lust for Life” drive on “M List” and a joyful dance groove on “Record Machine,” back the second of these tracks with a sensitivity more in line with a nightclub act.
“Last I Had”
Ethan Rutherford’s appearance at the beginning of the second side is jarring. He’s laid out more on this album than on last year’s EP, but made up his reduced role with intensity. Very much like Lou Reed’s deadpan delivery, Rutherford’s is capable of a remarkable emotional range. “Dallas” also introduces something else stunning: a piano, heretofore only heard on the alternate version of “NOLA” tacked on the end of Place. It gives “Dallas” a deeper and darker feeling than Rutherford’s compelling “Captain” on Sad Face/Glad Face while capturing the same sense of the epic in the midst of small world stories. Rutherford returns to the piano for the title track at the end of the album, leaving us with a strange and uncertain sense of dread.
Different sounds give the second side a different feeling. Starting with the searing solo on “Dallas” there’s more guitar, including a great sound to both lead and rhythm on “Broken Wheel.” There’s even an quiet electronic loop underneath “An Official Statement,” a remake of Sad Face/Glad Face‘s “Heroin.” All of it, even the straightforward pop tune “Broken Wheel” (probably the most conventional song they’ve ever recorded) follows the form of the first side — defying the constraints of familiar genre boundaries to carve out that distinct sound. The two recordings of “Heroin” capture just how successfully the band has done that.
Few bands survive “second album syndrome” as successfully as Pennyroyal has. Baby I’m Against It is as near a perfect album as we’re going to get this year, folks. The second side may stumble from the smooth pacing of the first, but we admit we can’t find another way to sequence the album’s twelve indispensable tracks. Some songs are rounded out by lyrical repetition (Consider another controversial Lou Reed quote: “I don’t mind a repetitive chorus; I mind repetitive verse. I mean, it’s the same amount of space.”) but maybe brevity is best. Even “Record Machine,” in all its awesomeness, leaves us wanting just a little more. These are all little things, the sort of flaws that make an album its own special world you can get lost in for a half hour. This is undeniably the best new album a band has brought into the shop this year.
Pennyroyal’s album release show for Baby I’m Against It is tomorrow night at Icehouse. Singer-songwriter Scott Laurent is returning to Minneapolis to perform an opening set. $10, 9:30pm. Details here.