Just when I’m about to give up on Indie Rock for good (and yes, that’s capital Indie Rock), something always happens that makes me come crawling back to it, begging forgiveness for turning my back on it. See, I’ve essentially been raised by Indie Rock – it put me through college anyway. (OK, it didn’t put me through college, but it was there for me when I got stoned.) At some point, you have to assert your independence – yes, intentional – and move out of the basement and get on with your life. Right? And it’s been happening more and more often to me lately – Indie Rock records just aren’t doing it for me anymore, and I turn to the experimental and weird for solace.
But my aw-shucks sheepish tug-of-war with indie (now lowercase – I’m not doing that all day) veers me periodically into apologetic territory. So here I am, again, hat in hand, ready to publicly announce that, no, indie rock as a specific genre is not dead. It is, in fact, very much alive, and thriving in communities from which I’ve distanced myself. Passenger Peru’s self-titled and self-released debut album proves without any doubt that you can make powerful, complicated, and interesting music within the confines of the standard rock band lineup.
And it’s even a simple duo on record, and boy do they stretch their sound beyond their numbers. Perhaps it’s not surprising – songwriter Justin Stivers played bass in The Antlers circa the seminal Hospice, and fronts Pet Ghost Project. Multi-instrumentalist Justin Gonzales is an octopus-armed freak of nature with his diverse skillset. So two guys sound like a whole lot more, and the many layers of their sound even come off as organic and playful, exuding a boyish charm that leaves little inference to any “studio” trickery. Which, when understood with the band’s complete DIY philosophy – recording, releasing, touring, etc. – only underscores the talent on hand.
And Passenger Peru is one gorgeous record.
At first blush, it’s easy to compare them to contemporaries Foxygen, with Passenger Peru’s breathy harmonies and breakneck execution. And then it continues to be easy to guess which records the Justins had in their collections while they were growing up. But while the influences are telegraphed, the results are satisfying and impeccably executed, giving a relapsed junkie like me every reason to reach for the cord connecting my iPod to the computer and jab it into my arm to mainline the results. That’s … somewhat metaphorical of course. Those aren’t USB trackmarks, honest.
I’m trying to find the heart of this record, the span of tunes where Passenger Peru really lets loose and gets dangerous, the “sweet spot” if you will, but I can’t seem to do it. Every time I try, I ask myself, “But what about this run? Isn’t that equally important?” It’s true. Passenger Peru, the album, is a complete full-throttle masterpiece, from minute one to fifty. Their talents are, possibly, distilled to a microcosm of the whole on my favorite track, “In the Absence of Snow,” where Grandaddy, Pavement, and Wilco, perhaps the three heaviest hitters in the genre in their time, jostle for prominence in the songwriters’ delivery, with my favorite moment occurring a tiny break where a “Range Life” slide guitar line becomes an Archers of Loaf “Strangled by the Stereo Wire” scribble within seconds, lasting incredibly briefly but proving that the little touches Stivers and Gonzales adorn their songs with pack a mighty wallop when taken as a whole.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface. The album quickly maneuvers through all flavors of hazy psychedelia, with the acoustic flourishes of “Heavy Drugs” melding into the major-key wistfulness of another personal favorite, “Weak Numbers,” the album’s longest song at 7:15, but a seeming pop nugget at its close. Know how I always and overbearingly cite Built to Spill’s Perfect from Now On as the pinnacle of making long songs seem short through brilliant songwriting? “Weak Numbers.” Yeah, Passenger Peru does a PFNO in its breathtakingly beautiful build, its refrain of “If you breathe, then you live” a mantra to repeat to its heights.
So why do I have to pick out songs to highlight? They’re all good! I wasn’t even going to mention “Memory Garden,” but it came on just now, and I love it. So much for the transition into the final three tunes, where I was going to say something like, you can’t talk about The Antlers and their members without talking about death, and sure enough, “Health System” has a chorus of “Health system, heart beat / health system, failing,” but again, it’s so weirdly and specially vibrant that the sting is lessened. It’s like that old Steve Martin bit where he suggests giving a banjo to the downtrodden, because who can’t be happy with a banjo? And then there’s “Dirt Nap,” and “Life and Death of a Band” – forget it, I’m just going to hit repeat for a while. You do the same.
(PS on that last paragraph: “Life and Death of a Band” has a Heatmiser vibe! Heatmiser!)
Do you want a soundbite, a pithy blurb? I’m a little too blissed out to provide snark or barbed wit, but I think I can oblige with abundant praise: This is a fine record, as fine an indie rock album – no, scratch that, as fine an album as you’ll encounter in 2012 and likely long beyond. You have outdone yourself, Passenger Peru – don’t blow it now by doing something stupid.
RIYL: The Antlers, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Pavement, Wilco