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Pinback, Autumn of the Seraphs

It’s been three years since Pinback released its last LP, Summer in Abaddon. This album of addictive pop hooks and mild successes like “Fortress” came out amid the excitement of The O.C.’s second season, the premier of Garden State, and the soundtracks that accompanied them. The negative correlation between mainstream success and indie cred was taking root in bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse, while a host of other groups like Bloc Party and The Arcade Fire appeared on the scene, artfully managing to remain nationally popular yet appealingly obscure.

On Pinback’s latest record, Autumn of the Seraphs, the band has resisted the temptation to infuse their songs with hooks and gimmicks to build off Summer in Abaddon’s mainstream success. Unlike its predecessor, Autumn of the Seraphs is remarkably sparse and subdued. We hear no Ben Gibbard-esque reverb in lead singer Rob Crow’s powerful voice, and the bass and guitars rarely leave the “clean” setting. There’s an average of two-and-a-half instruments playing at once, backed by an incessant drumbeat that seems to revel in its timidity.

Yet, for all the merits of barrenness, the album could use a good jolt. It starts out promising with the song “From Nothing to Nowhere.” Here, charged vocals enter immediately, containing a certain confidence suggesting that the album’s remaining indie-pop tunes will be of this caliber. Yet this song has an unmistakable hollowness, denied all its potential to energize and excite. The next few songs are all sufficiently good. “Barnes” has a sweet, detached melody that enters effortlessly and prevails throughout. “Good to Sea” is impressively catchy, though the band’s attempts to play around with the phrase “good to see” — as seen in the title and in the lines “It’s good to see you / it’s good to see you go” — come off as forced and silly. As the album progresses, however, song quality seems to decrease almost linearly. If you’re an animated listener, don’t be surprised if your head bobs go from vertical to horizontal to non-existent as you move through the album.

Autumn of the Seraphs is overall pleasant and cerebral.The songs hover in the air indifferently for you to enjoy or discard. Perhaps the only gimmick was putting all of the good songs first.

Baby Elephant, Turn My Teeth Up!

Baby Elephant is a funk and hip-hop group from New York City comprised of band members Prince Paul (rap, production), Newkirk (rap, voiceover, production), and Bernie Worrell (keyboard). Their debut album, Turn My Teeth Up! features several notable guest artists, including George Clinton, Yellowman, and David Byrne. (Worrell is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who performed with David Byrne at the creative peak of the Talking Heads.)

The best song on the album, “How Does the Brain Wave?” featuring Byrne, is also the track with the most plays on Baby Elephant’s MySpace page. The song begins with a space-age monologue about a futuristic world in the year 3000 and proceeds into a catchy refrain: “How does the brain wave / How do my insides say hello / We feel the same way / Passion, passion smashing down the door.” The funk beat adds an interesting dynamic quality underneath the vocals of another guest (Nona Hendryx) and the rest of the band. While I wouldn’t label “How Does the Brain Wave?” as a serious club-banger, it succeeds as a funky track with surreal lyrics and quality production.

With help from Shock G, the track “Plainfield” infuses rap with retro-funk organ and percussion. The intro, featuring Anthony Riscica’s drumbeat set to an audio sample of children laughing, establishes a sense of momentum. But as soon as the rap starts the energy plummets, and the track seems to end before it really begins. The questionable sampling of what sounds like a tenor opera singer makes the track sound very disjointed.

On the whole, Turn My Teeth Up! seems to lack a necessary sense of continuity and leaves the listener feeling somewhat alienated; perhaps the collaboration with so many different artists extended the creative and sonic scope of the album a bit too far. Each song feels like a great idea that never really materialized, as Baby Elephant attempts, with little success, to cram in tons of random sampling and unresolved musical motifs. Although Turn My Teeth Up! features a lot of great artists, it feels like a classic example of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Trapt, Live!

Alternative/grunge-rock group Trapt released its first live album, Live!, this September. Trapt was formed in 1997 in Los Gatos, Calif., and the group released its first album, Glimpse, in 2000. Band members Chris Brown (vocals and guitar), Simon Ormandy (guitar), and Peter Charell (bass) have been around since the beginning, while drummer Aaron Montgomery recently joined the group.

The live release includes two new studio-produced songs, “Stay Alive” and “Everything to Lose,” the latter succeeding as the best song on the album. The verse has a genuine emotional and poetic quality, while the chorus evokes the grunge-rock energy that Trapt is known for. The rest of the album essentially rides on the coattails of older post-grunge “hits,” with a recording production that is average at best. None of the songs excel in a live setting, and the recordings fail to exude the energy of the crowd. Overall, Live! captures an uneventful set of mediocre alternative rock, destined for the used bin at your local record store. Trapt, I’d like my hour back.