Human paleness immediately suggests two scenarios: remoteness from the sun and sickness. In either case, an absenting from life. Previously, at least in certain European societies, paleness was a characteristic attributed to refined figures, those free from and above arduous physical labor. This has, of course, gone out of fashion, perhaps, and among other reasons, because color photographs tend not to render paleness flatteringly. Another trope, however, that of the artist or philosopher as unworldly, pale outsider continues to be a common one and through it we perhaps come nearer the logic behind a band’s self-application of the word.
Pale Young Gentlemen are a troupe of musicians from Madison, Wis., a troupe composed not only of gentlemen, but gentlewomen as well. Their music is not the sort of thing expected from a sickly young man confining himself to his lightless room for eternal hours, a slave to his art and the lofty ideal which he approaches through it. Rather, on their latest (second) record, Black Forest (Tra La La), Pale Young Gentlemen deliver a playfully elegiac set of songs which station the anachronistic alongside the contemporary. The pervading effect is monochrome—and not only because the band sometimes has an old-timey flair that gives off the flavor of timeworn sepia photographs. The interplay of certain instruments and voices is foregrounded, not only taking precedence over any single element but also restraining the songs, keeping them from overwhelming the listener. One feels free to admire all the little lines that come together to make up the composition.
Not to say Black Forest is to be appreciated in a particularly analytic manner. That is hardly the case. It’s simply that the music is whimsical in a way that invites slow navigation. And, navigating slowly, one of the first things one notices is the breadth of effect that they get from the able string arrangements. “Coal/Ivory” opens the album with a dose of the American gothic, wide wind-blown landscapes and at the center a full-blooded figure at home in the changeable currents of fate. These latter are given ample form in the uneasy accents of the viola and cello. Here, and also on the mildly and enticingly hysteric, “Crook of My Good Arm,” Mike Reisenauer’s vocals touch on a bravado embroiled with, and trying to sever itself from, a mismatched sensitivity. These aggressive moments make clear just how ruminative the rest of the album is.
Nostalgia is palpable on many of Black Forest‘s songs. “Our History” is illustrative on this count. The song feels spacious—and this space it creates like a perfect place for remembrance and exploration, examination and contemplation. On “Wedding Guest,” an almost comic chorus of “Tra la la la la la” punctuates the odd feeling of imagining oneself in a place once visited which should not have been visited again, not even in thought. Here, as elsewhere, Pale Young Gentlemen easily oscillate between two poles: an articulate usage of simple, Americana-inflected dynamics and a taste for richly orchestrated chamber pop. When they get the mix just right—as they do often enough, most notably on “Kettle Drum (I Left a Note)”—the result is subtle but wondrous.