PALE YOUNG GENTLEMEN – Black Forest (tra la la)
(2008 Science of Sound)
The Pale Young Gentlemen’s self-titled debut was a revelation, a spontaneous eruption of joyous pounding keyboards, addictive percussion, hypnotic cello and Mike Reisenauer’s lilting drawl of a voice. Their sophomore release, Black Forest (tra la la), retains many of those elements, but with several key differences. For one, the party has become much larger—the five musicians on the first record swelled to seven for this release, with four additional guests. In addition, bassist Andrew Brawner left to pursue his own muse, forming Time Since Western, so guitarist Brett Randall moved into his spot. Which likely led to the most significant change: the rambunctious keyboards are out as the lead instrument and Reisenauer’s stately guitar is in.
I completely respect that a band needs to change and mature; I certainly didn’t want them to make the same record twice. Problem is, their new grown-up persona just isn’t any fun. It’s like your best friend went away to summer camp and came back a different person, one who cares about labels on clothes and doesn’t want to have water balloon fights anymore. The barely three-minute gypsy pop songs of the first record have given way to four-minute-plus sonatas. Even though there isn’t a sophisticated bone in my body, I really can appreciate that these songs are pretty. They just don’t make me feel like dancing, probably because the drums and (especially) the bass are almost nonexistent.
Huh, I think I just had a “Eureka!” moment. I’ve been trying to figure out why I haven’t fallen for this disc the way I did their debut, and I think I just deciphered it. It’s not the abstract lyrics, worthy of fairy tales or magic spells, or Reisenauer’s occasionally discordant falsetto. No, it’s because Black Forest doesn’t have any rhythm. Only “The Crook of My Good Arm” has the sort of propulsive percussion that gets me shimmying my shoulders and shaking my hips. Opening track “Coal/Ivory” also has its moments, but the rest of the disc drifts by on a pretty river of string arrangements. Even “Kettle Drum (I Left a Note)” has only a minimum of snare audible.
One benefit of their gentrification is that those arrangements are gorgeous. Liz Weamer’s cello, the lone string on the first record, now anchors a section that also includes Gwendolyn Miller on viola and Derek Powell on violin. The guest musicians make the most of their invitations. Leelanee Sterrett’s French horn is the best part of “Wedding Guest” (Reisenauer’s inharmonious “tra la la’s” the worst). Margaret Mackenzie’s angelic harp floats along the first two-thirds of “We Will Meet” before the guitar, cello and Jackie Reisenauer’s flute bring it home. Nowhere is this classical bent more apparent than on the fifty-second instrumental “Shadows/Doorways,” which begins the theoretical side two.
Not only do they recall Andrew Bird musically, but they seem to be on the same musical path. If you prefer his recent Noble Beast to his earlier work with the Bowl of Fire, then you will likely be impressed with Black Forest. If, however, you refer to the time before Bird had a looping pedal as “the good old days,” you’re probably wondering why the Pale Young Gentlemen had to go and ruin a good thing. I’m leaning toward the latter, but that could all change if one them learns to whistle.