When I saw the reincarnation of Pedro The Lion at Brighton Music Hall last summer, founder/frontman/songwriter David Bazan introduced the rest of the band and commented something to the effect of "We were all here in this room a few months ago playing pretty much the same songs, we just weren't calling ourselves Pedro," (and I nodded in recollection, since I'd been there to see that 'David Bazan w/ full band' show as well). He paused, then added with a smirk, "It's the same band, but more of you came out to see us play tonight," as if to suggest there might be something else in the name itself. And that night Pedro The Lion gave us a preview of their still upcoming Phoenix with a live version of the new song "Quietest Friend," and at the time January 2019 seemed ages away. But would it be worth that 5 month wait (or over 14 years for those holding out for a follow-up to Achilles Heel)?
Well, yes. I'm in love with this record actually. After the instrumental intro Sunrise, the song Yellow Bike strikes an uncharacteristically sweet note for Pedro The Lion, connecting his first time as a child riding on two wheels to his journey as a solo musician, on the road and longing for the camaraderie of playing in a band again. It's a new day indeed. Even so, the next track called Clean Up revisits familiar sonic territory, echoing songs like "Foregone Conclusions" from Achilles Heel. Powerful Taboo finishes off the otherwise upbeat sounding Side A with a bit of a breather, and brings a guitar part that is somehow both creeping and soaring. Lo Tom fans rejoice: this is a song that sounds like it could have just as easily fit on the 2017 release from that Bazan/Walsh/Martin/Many collaboration.
Model Homes was the first pre-release "single" to really jump out at me. As with "Powerful Taboo," the guitar on this song emotes nearly as much as Bazan's voice, with an undeniable ache and longing among wide open tracts in the sound. Following Piano Bench (a brief lead-in that evokes Leonard Cohen), Circle K lyrically circles back to 2000's Winners Never Quit, except this time it's a kid with a spending problem in the snacks aisle that the Good Lord smiles and looks the other way from. Quietest Friend describes a memory of a careless betrayal in a fifth grade lunch room, framing a possibly universal experience in a way perhaps only David Bazan can. On Tracing the Grid, Bazan pauses to explicitly acknowledge the mark his hometown made, and to note the stories told by his aunts and uncles that stuck in his mind though the years.
The opening track on Side C recalls a story told by his Uncle Ray, a first responder to a grisly scene on the Black Canyon Freeway. "Compartments came apart then," Bazan sings on Black Canyon, a song that coils around sonic and lyrical themes similar to "Priests and Paramedics" from 2002's Control, and is as incredible and devastating as any other from Pedro The Lion. Yet somehow "Black Canyon" manages to strike even closer to home. Seriously holy fuck. "Tell your stories," Bazan urges. Hell isn't other people- it's isolation from them, and the burden of carrying terrible secrets alone. The intensity carries into My Phoenix, a rock anthem with possible echos of "Magazine" (also from Control), as if anyone at this point needed a reminder that Pedro The Lion is back with the intention of leaving a mark. This is a song that deserves to be played again louder just to pay attention to the drums. All Seeing Eye follows that crashing wave by stripping almost everything back out. What remains sounds reminiscent of Bazan's synth-laden solo work on Blanco (2016) and Care (2017). And the final track, Leaving The Valley, concludes with words recalling the opening track on Curse Your Branches, Bazan's first solo LP from 2009: "If I swung by tassel to the left side of my cap, after graduation will there be no going back?"
David Bazan has released a lot of great music since 2004's Achilles Heel, including the brilliant (yet rather hushed) Care/Blano pair and (possibly my favorite) the plugged-in tight rock album Strange Negotiations. But Phoenix marks a grand and worthy reclaiming of the Pedro name which an even fuller embrace of color and vulnerability. Here Bazan wields the resurrected Pedro The Lion with what sounds like a reinvigorated spirit to go louder, longer, bolder, and possibly better than anything in his career thus far. <3 cg
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