I love living in Seattle. Sure, it would be great to live in New York and be at the epicenter of the whole DFA / discobeat revival, and sure it would be fantastic to be in Toronto during this Arts & Crafts phenomenon, or really anyone of a thousand different times and places that have become the signposts of rock history. But Seattle at this point in time is a virtual Petri dish of burgeoning new styles of music, and even a haven for some of the all time best. DCFC, the Buttersprites, the Crystal Skulls, Kinski, Minus the Bear, as well as the homes of Suicide Squeeze, Barsuk and of course, Sub Pop and many, many more bands and labels make Seattle the city with the finger on the pulse of ingenious music. Hell, even Pearl Jam is still going strong with a new album out soon! But no recent album has me excited about the future of Seattle music as Pretty Girls Make Graves’ third album, Élan Vital.
Guitarist Nathan Thelen has left the band, but PGMG still remains a quintet with the addition of Hint Hint’s Leona Marrs. Marrs’ new wave keyboards add an element of depth to the already brash presence of the band, fleshing it out and making it whole. Élan Vital still revolves around the energetic, punky pronunciations of frontwoman Andrea Zollo. Her sassy post-punk vibe drives everything around it, but the truly great thing about PGMG is that you can isolate one instrument or voice throughout the album, tracking it from start to finish and be astounded at the performance. Whether it’s Derek Fudesco’s crisp and sternum shattering bass, Jay Clark’s turbo-charged guitar, Marrs’ subtle keys, the various added sounds such as the whistles at the opening of “The Nocturnal House,” or especially Nick Dewitt’s so so sick drumming, each one is so accomplished in its own right to deserve special treatment and further listening.
The whistles and At the Drive-In like echoing guitars kick off the album’s first track, “The Nocturnal House.” It’s a stunning and attention grabbing beginning to a stellar album. When Zollo repeatedly sings the word “Magnetic” during the chorus, she could be talking about the album’s hold on its listener. Dewitt’s rapid-fire percussion and Marrs’ single keyboard notes support the onset of “Pyrite Pedestal,” a freight train of a song that doesn’t let up the pressure. It takes all of your willpower not to air drum or pound the table with your fingertips. Zollo’s energy is apparent when she sings, “And when I scream,” but what’s even more compelling is the Norma Rae-like call to arms for workers of the world song, “Parade.” In it, Zollo sings to Fudesco’s bouncy bassline, saying “We’re throwing down our push brooms / We’re hanging up our apron ties.” A Madness-era piano beat starts out the disco song, “Domino,” which has what I can only guess is a shout out to TV on the Radio as Zollo references `bloodthirsty youth.’
After a brief instrumental interlude, the second half of the album starts with the seductive sounds of the jangly electric guitar of “The Magic Hour.” There is no denying the raw energy within such a song. “Selling the Wind,” backed with an accordion, is one of the more intricate songs on the album, with lyrics resembling a sea chantey. It’s as if a Joseph Conrad short story were set to post-punk music. The keyboards and accordion recall waltzing music playing on a pier, while Clark’s guitar is more of a surf punk style, creating an overall complete sense of the sea. Things slow down a bit with the more subdued dreamy ballad “Pearls on a Plate,” before “Pictures of a Night Scene” which features an Exorcist like piano that highlights the single song with male vocals. PGMG then gets back to what they do best, assaulting the ears with beautiful noise as in the song “Wildcat.” The pulse-pounding and will-breaking drums of Dewitt return in full force in the closer “Bullet Charm.”
While the whole grunge thing was going on, I was in Southern California, watching the glam punk of Jane’s Addiction and the punk-funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers take shape. While the whole English scene was in its prime with the release of OK Computer, Blur’s self-titled album and the Verve’s magnum opus, Urban Hymns, I was in, of all places, Delaware. I always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That all changed when I moved to Seattle and now find myself in one of the best times and places in indie music history. The album’s title translates roughly into `vital force,’ something that perfectly describes the band and the energy of its music. Pretty Girls Make Graves and their album, Élan Vital, might not be leading the charge, but they’re making the loudest and most accurate shots.
Hint Hint- Young Days
X-Ray Spex- Germ Free Adolescents
Siouxsie & the Banshees- Tinderbox