Seekonk: Pinkwood 2

Return 2 Pinkwood

The once and future Seekonk

Seekonk’s web site has been abandoned and is now a home for spam. They haven’t played a show this year [this was originally written in 2008]. Northeast Indie, the label that in 2005 put out the band’s last album, Pinkwood, has also lost its internet presence and is no longer an active label (though I bet Paul Agnew still has a few discs available for sale should you want to track him down).

Heck, the Seekonk album Burst & Bloom released this week, Pinkwood 2, was originally released two years ago and was in the can a year before that.

Why should anyone care?

Maybe we’re not collectively that cynical yet. As artistically satisfying as it was for Seekonk to release Pinkwood 2 originally as a limited run of 100 pieces of vinyl, they really were depriving the larger populace of a fairly grand musical experience. Now, thanks to Burst & Bloom (it’s a limited run of 100 CDs this time around, but they’ll make more if you buy them, I’m fairly certain), there’s a whole new opportunity to experience a gifted band at the height of their powers.

Described often as slo-core, or even orchestral indie, it’s true they share an aesthetic with Low or Mazzy Star at times, but even if this band were doing nothing but covers, I suspect they’d be worth listening to. Each note is so carefully chosen, placed, and positioned. Seekonk offer such a whole and inclusive world in which to reside. Their sound fits effortlessly into that sweet spot of familiar and brand-new.

Is it the pacing that makes a Seekonk song? No. “For a Reason,” with a digital effect like a UFO landing and taking off, is downright manic in its beat, with xylophone like drops of water off the trees onto the roof an hour after the thunderstorm ended. By the finish it’s a straight-up head-nodder.

Seekonk are more than a quiet band to get moody to.

Perhaps what they do best is challenge expectations. They open Pinkwood 2 with “The Rage,” a song that ironically begins lushly and gently, with pinging xylophone and Sarah Ramey’s breathy vocals assuring, “it’s nice to meet you.”

You find the rage, but only if you keep looking. What is rage when you don’t seem to know what aggression is?

Maybe it’s in the digital whirring that purposely mars the pop sensibility with a touch of discord, just as the band throw in sour notes as though to keep things from getting too pretty. “Take the records off the shelf,” Ramey implores, “throw them away.” Only a band this confident would bring in this late-song electric guitar riff, before quickly taking it away.

There are bands that would craft whole songs from that riff. For Seekonk, it’s a passing fancy, the type of thing Pat Corrigan or Todd Hutchisen seem to effortlessly dream up.

“Half Moon,” a good stand in for the essence of Seekonk, is methodical without being plodding, delicate and serene. To the fore is an acoustic guitar strum, a keyboard mirroring the vocal melody, but there’s a sheen of feedback and screeching that’s just out of earshot, as though there were traffic in the background as you listened to the song on the bus with your earphones in.

Around the four-minute mark the drums enter and add a sense of urgency, ramping the song up into a full-blown indie rock tune, crashing about and active like the Walkmen (whose new Lisbon is a kissing cousin to this disc in many ways).

They can strut and bounce, too. The vibraphone and brushes on the snare in “38. Special” amble and shuffle, while the lyrics and delivery suggest something darker. This song, more than any of the eight here, make you wonder what would happen if the band took the governor off.

Not that they’re the type of band to be constrained by genre. They move, in “Breakfast at Noon” and later in “Hills of Pennsylvania,” toward an alt-country vibe, mixing in pedal steel and a twang you can feel in your gut. In “Noon,” Jason Ingalls’ crisp snare is mixed perfectly by Jonathan Wyman, a support structure for Ramey’s best vocals of the disc, rising for once into full body at the 3:30 mark.

But Seekonk won’t be predictable or easy. The shuffling Texas beat of “Hills,” heavy in low-end guitar, with competing melody lines, shifts suddenly to a Latin beat, active, which itself is in contrast to the hovering vocals, which never sound less than half asleep.

That’s part of their sound, of course, but I do find myself wishing Ramey would finish off a few more lyrics, instead of living on initial consonant and vowel sounds. A few glottal stops here and there and I might catch a bit more meaning.

This isn’t a lyrics band, though, and Ramey’s voice is as much a part of the instrumental construction as it is a mode of meaning delivery. In the crisp “Waking,” a gorgeous construction of delicate guitar and xylophone, she repeats “right about now” until it’s poppy and uplifting, before backwards-played mutterings enter to haunt the song’s finish.

That nagging sense of doubt is the album’s heart. It is the conscience we battle to both ignore and satisfy, the ugliness we seek to dispel but can’t live without.

Seekonk: Pinkwood

In the Pink

Seekonk’s second is a perfect sculpture of sound

Any group of musicians can get together, ramp up the beats per minute, and impress a crowd of onlookers with a barrage of notes. It’s basically the central tenet of modern bluegrass. But only a finely tuned band can play slowly and keep people interested. That’s much of the explanation for Ocean’s success, and it’s what makes Seekonk their fey equivalent.

On their second album, Pinkwood, Seekonk live up to every inch of their quietest-supergroup-in-Portland reputation. It is a cohesive, expertly played, endearing work of art that gets better each time you play it and, like an oil painting from across the room, reveals more and more with closer inspection.

Listening to this on anything other than headphones borders on abomination. The instruments envelope you in a warm blanket of sound, vocals sometimes so closely mic’d you can hear as many as three vocalists at once open their individual mouths, identifying each by their tongue parting from palate with a pop of saliva. Some of that is thanks to producer Jonathan Wyman, who also turned the knobs on their debut For Barbara Lee (Kimchee Records), but most of the credit has to go to Seekonk’s singular vision for their music, which is uncompromising and distinct (it’s also almost hard to believe considering everyone’s side projects: Satellite Lot, An Evening With and Baltic Sea are top of mind and all excellent).

To practice this stuff, I swear they’d have to live together in a biosphere.

“Love,” “Armstrong,” and “Air,” which open the new album, might have your standard rock fan jumping ship. All three are slow as the dust under your couch, laconic and narcotic, living inside the harmony between Sarah Ramey’s lead vocals and multi-instrumentalists Todd Hutchisen and Dave Noyes’s backing. There’s no shortage of notes, though, with classical guitars mixing with theremin or something played backwards to keep you slightly off balance. The organ that introduces “Armstrong” might remind you of Tree by Leaf’s “Rubert Sheldrake,” but a more appropriate reference might be a song played by a pop band like As Fast As, only at half-time.

“Powerout” is where the album really gets going. Like something off Sonic Youth’s Sonic Nurse, an electric guitar stands at the fore, drums played in traditional rock fashion, and Ramey’s voice has bite to it. “Say I’m faded,” she purrs as part of the chorus like a dare, “say I’m power shutting down.” No, they’re only getting started.

“Mar” follows with digital sound effects that prop up that indie technique of playing two notes on the guitar over and over, then moving elsewhere on the fretboard and playing two different notes over and over. Regardless, things get downright sped up, with Jason Ingalls tapping the high-hat like a kid with restless leg syndrome at a Susan Colllins speech on homeland security. My only disappointment here is the tease that is the distorted guitar, living just below the surface of the song.

The song is like Pinkwood’s a mid-afternoon cup of coffee.

“Take My Wife” follows, the best song on the disc. It enters with a flamenco vibe, the drums kind of rawhide, Ramey talking about seeing your father kill a man in her lowest growl on the album, almost Cowboy Junkies, but not exactly “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man.” Is this a divorce song? “You’ll remain in this place I call hell.” Still, Ramey is as sexy as I’ve ever heard her when the band cuts out and she breathes at a fast clip: “With this motion in your sleep you must be dreaming.”

At one point in the five-minute tune, the mood darkens further and what seems like the whole band starts in with a chant like something you heard at that KKK meeting in O Brother Where Art Thou?. Something about it couldn’t be more Pat Corrigan, who for me is the band’s energy. It’s straight-up creepy.

So’s the crispness of the transition between the charming and lilting guitars that follow as the start of “Orange & Blue” and the song’s chorus, where Ramey busts out a set of pipes her normal whisper didn’t let you know she had. The chunked guitars, crashing drums, and blaring organ are jarring, but not uncomfortable. No, Seekonk save that feeling for an industrial clanging that makes up the bridge.

Finally on the near perfectly programmed 40-minute disc, “The Great Compromise” serves as a kiss goodbye. It’s a bossa nova, a la Getz’s “Girl from Ipanema,” and a song you could easily play 100 times in a row and not get sick of. One would wonder if it was an offshoot of Noyes’s time in Dulce de Leche if one wasn’t picturing Ramey in a red sequined dress and a lot of big hair.

They’re cinematic as a band, with big panning shots and tight direction. Pinkwood is a place you can see as much as hear.