As adherents to The Jeff Mangum School of Thought know, a sure path to mythic status involves considerable talent, limited output, and a successfully crafted disappearance from the public sphere. Seattle-by-way-of-Vermont folk fanciers The Pica Beats represent Mangum’s latest scholars, though they show no sign of fading from sight any time in the near future. Entrenched in whimsical, elaborate wordplay courtesy of lead man Ryan Barrett, Beating Back The Claws Of The Cold saps traditional folk tendencies, adding sitar, oboe and other non-traditional sounds to create one of the most refreshing lyric-driven releases of the year.
Like any songwriter worth his weight in metaphors, Barrett populates his narratives with colorful minutiae: defunct Egyptian gods, orphan suicides, dysfunctional families, and Ponzi schemes. In a less than perfect nasal croon, his tales spill from a wide pallet, endearing for all the cleverness indicative of a well-read lyricist. Fans of The Decemberists no doubt will find much to love in these earnest odes, rife with descriptive delinquents, loveable for all their shortcomings. Opener “Poor Old Ra” laments the passing of ancient lore via modern despondence, “with every oil slick and passing barge, the chances that you are go down.” Irresistible oboes tinge the minor key melody a melancholic shade of deepest blue, but it’s Barrett’s ceaseless lyrical prowess that proves his greatest asset, as evidenced later on in the same track, “I am the tension, you are the tightrope.” Hyper-literate, yes, but heartfelt first and foremost.
Beating Back The Claws Of The Cold exhales early morning breath on a chill fall breeze, autumnal as the loosing of golden leaves from the maple trees of Barrett’s home state. As its themes deal with various passings (seasons, religions, lives), Cold ultimately embraces the ephemeral nature of all things as inevitable, and thus, part of some larger, unfathomable order. “Shrinking Violets” crackles with Neutral Milk Hotel’s fuzzed acoustics, though its Barrett’s muse that takes center stage in shrouded couplets, “come breathe with a poor man’s paper doll, that was buried in the leaves last fall, and raking will, bring it to the surface again.” Elsewhere ” Cognac and Rum” dissolves a sea-shanty amid war imagery and imperialism run amok, comforting finally in the resiliency of natural systems absent of man’s destructiveness, “so by-and-by there is grass on the battlefield, and the weed grows again.”
Of course Barrett’s skillful word wrangling would ring desperately hollow if not for ample and insistent melodies. Instrumental “Martine, As Heavy Lifter” saddles a sinewy sitar rhythm without an inkling of pretense. “Hikikomori and the Rental Sisters” suffuses that same sitar with plinking piano and driving percussion. But it’s “Shallow Dive,” built around a diminutive guitar arpeggio that lays bear Barrett’s limited vocals, where the retelling of an orphan suicide gives pause and sets hackles to rising. Though a graceful exit from the limelight has served many artists a generous helping of critical quibbling over their meteoric ascendancy to cult stature, my bets are on The Pica Beats to reach their own peak well within the span of their career, which, on the strength of their music, ought to be a long one.
MP3: “Poor Old Ra”