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Pigeons or Panthers “Helen EP”

Pigeons or Panthers \
Pigeons or Panthers
Helen EP
(Pretty Blue Presents, 2008)

Pigeons or Panthers know exactly what they’re doing. In the six songs they self-recorded for their Helen EP they present us with complex-yet-catchy melodies played with studied precision on a large arsenal of varied instruments. The influences are wide ranging, from hints of calypso to short forays into disco, but they could all be summed up in comparisons to bands like Man Man, Islands, or The Black Heart Procession. While I enjoy all of these songs, both individually and as a whole EP, I find myself left with a puzzling feeling that something isn’t right. I say puzzling because I think these are creative and original songs arranged with style and performed with technique that adhere to an overall cohesive sound. So what’s missing?

To preface, this website is called What I Think About Your Music. These reviews are written under that name because they are all the sole opinion of the writer and his/her thoughts about music and how it should sound. That said, in the opinion of this reviewer, I can’t feel a shred of sincerity or conviction in the songs on Pigeons or Panthers’ Helen EP. When they sing about the apocalypse in opener “Twenty Twelve” or the imminent end of all things in “Socratic Death” I hear no fear or, alternately, acceptance in their voices. On “Chimpanzees” I can’t feel the absurdity implied by comparing our modern life to that of a monkey’s. Everything I hear on this CD is done perfectly by the book, but without any heart. Is it because of the lack of intensity in the vocal delivery? Is it because of the self-recorded, self-mixed, self-mastered sound quality? Is it because of the fledging status of the band? I can’t say exactly why this important element is missing, but I can say that it is.

The music featured on Helen EP is unique, enjoyable, and occasionally even memorable. The members of Pigeons or Panthers have innovative ideas about what experimental indie music should sound like, and they execute their ideas across the 6 songs of the release with great care. As a whole, however, the songs sound like emotionless exercises in music instead of visceral experiences to be shared with an audience. The members of the band most likely mean every note they strike and every word they sing, but, armed only with this EP, you couldn’t convince me of it.


Brother J. Irvin Dally / 100 Swans “Split Cassette”

Brother J.Irvin Dally / 100 Swans \

Brother J. Irvin Dally / One Hundred Swans
Split Cassette
(Pretty Blue Presents, 2008)

The two artists on this tape, Brother J. Irvin Dally and One Hundred Swans (moniker for Ben Chisholm and whomever he brings into his fold), most definitely share some qualities as musicians and songwriters. Both are the sole/primary composers of their music. Both are inclined to the introspective/contemplative side of music. Both record themselves at home/somewhere they don’t have to pay for. Both are featured on this split cassette. Other than those similarities they are two very different musicians. I will tell you what I think about their music accordingly.

Brother J. Irvin Dally
The one and only song Brother J. Irvin Dally offers on this cassette begins with a flurry of out of tune and out of time music accompanied by yelping, ghost-like vocals. Unexpected electronic elements and various room recordings come and go without warning and usually tend to signal the ushering in of a new part of the song. The musical ideas at play here are reminiscent of The Microphones and Animal Collective, but with a vocal style that leans more towards Damien Rice and, almost uncannily, Jeff Buckley.

After a short, bleeping electronic interlude around the 7 and-a-half minute mark I ask myself, “Is this really one song?” Could J. Irvin really play this all the way through from beginning to end live? What I hear are about 20 different songs that were recorded individually and subsequently connected by overdubbed sounds to appear seamless. The idea of The Microphones’ epic final album Mount Eerie is prevalent in this song’s lengthy and shape shifting nature, but the simultaneous expanse and intimacy is lost in the erratic sounds and broken ideas of the 26 minute “song”. In addition, the peaks and valleys of the music this song reminds me of are nowhere to be found. A plateau of emotion and instrumentation is consistent throughout.

I can’t help but feel that if the parts of Brother J. Irvin Dally’s “The Countryside of Southern Illinois & the Day Dreams That Almost Got Me to 19 Years” were written and recorded as separate songs my opinion would be different. However, I’m driven to compare the song to a frozen pizza. All the ingredients are in their appropriate spots, and it looks like it could be amazing to eat. All you need to do is take the time and preparation to heat everything up and you’ll be satisfied. Just make sure you cut it into slices before you eat it.

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One Hundred Swans
The most common modus operandi for singer/songwriters is to impart their feelings, ideas, and experiences to the listener through songs either roughly or directly inspired by their own lives. I’d have to say that well over three quarters of the time these songs are about love and the pain, joy, or uncertainty that comes with the intense experience. If an artist is doing his/her job then those emotions and stories will speak to you and stick with you. For the most part, Ben Chisholm (aka One Hundred Swans) doesn’t cloud what he wants to share with unnecessary experimentation and distracting production. His songs are honest, beautiful, and, when they’re at their best, classic.

The brightest moments throughout the 8 tracks on One Hundred Swans’ side of the cassette come with the stripped down arrangements of “Daffodil”, “Nora”, and “Hey How Was Your Day”. A simple guitar and vocal melody help breathe truth into memorable lyrics like, “Though the silence that I will leave you with seems wrong/I know I’ll have much more to say when I’m gone” and “You are the rainy day that I’ve always needed/The sun won’t hurt me no more”. These stanzas speak on universal themes while their delivery keeps them intimate and accessible on a personal level. That sort of balance is Chisholm’s greatest asset, but it’s sadly lost when his aspirations aim higher.

The other 5 songs from One Hundred Swans are less focused and range from genre exercises like the jangly, psych-pop of “Temperate Ghost” to Black Heart Procession influenced piano numbers like “Where is My Girl”. The same lyrical and emotional intent is there, but the immediacy and charm is lost behind the inconsistency. I wouldn’t call these bad songs, the solid structure and musicianship are still prevalent, but they do sound like an all together completely different band. Thankfully, no matter his method of execution, the promise of a singer/songwriter is delivered again and again through Ben Chisholm’s 8 songs as One Hundred Swans. I’d consider them less of a body of work and more of a collection of early recordings. I’m sure when the time comes for a solo EP or even a full length recording that his sound will be refined and his ideas will be collected and concise. I look forward to it.