Pedal Steel Transmission – The Angel of the Squared Circle

Pedal Steel Transmission
The Angel of the Squared Circle

For a genre that has always been seen as stereotypically provincial and narrow-minded, country music has proven to be amazingly elastic, able to be hyphenated with just about any kind of qualifier imaginable. From the Pentecostal fervor of Elvis’ earliest records to Beck’s combining steel guitar and turntables, the essence of the music seems to be endlessly resilient and stubbornly American. For a few albums now, Chicago’s Pedal Steel Transmission has been joining in that dialogue, perfecting a strangely effecting form of progressive country-rock, not exactly like the hypnotic twang-drones of Japancakes nor akin to the psychedelic pastoral doom of NoahJohn but something distinctively theirs and vaguely innovative. Sure, the resulting sound is a bit like Built to Spill melted over an old Uncle Tupelo LP, but one never gets the impression that they’re simply draping paint-by-numbers guitar epics over lonely Midwestern sonic panels. If anything, this is a band that seems to be caught in a perpetual state of transition, and The Angel of the Squared Circle is a telling document of that process.
Mandolin rattle and slightly ominous acoustic picking open the set, slowly building around marching drums into a vaguely lounge-jazz tempo, complete with tremolo guitar and a down-and-out failed love narrative. As always, the push and pull between the rise and fall of the arrangement, slowly straining to break through the tension inherent in the dejected lyric and the smoldering resignation of the vocals. “With a kiss on your cheek / The rain would know we slept alone,” repeated as a solitary recitation, ranks as one of their more poignant lines and displays a lyrical restraint that is, at times, found lacking in the set.
In fact, the drama that these musicians create with so much apparent ease in their sonic dynamic seems a bit strained when it comes to the lyrical counterparts. “Leave it all / Take it all away / Take everything you’d put away to stay” becomes the soulful refrain of “Maritime Glare,” with horns overwhelming the pastoral lilt and trailing electric guitar lines that define the song’s arrangement. A bit overstated maybe, but lines like “Ezra pounds with leaps and bounds on coffee grounds” (snagged from among the pulsing fuzz chords and sparkling guitar textures of “Gilman Report”) reach for a Dylan-esque acumen that is better left alone. Of course, such concerns distract little from the actual power of the arrangements, which is solidly founded on the shifting nature and multiple passages that unwind fairly effortlessly.
And that aesthetic proves to be surprisingly multi-faceted through the album’s length. A Spanish gunslinger feel opens “Editene” with slurvy guitar lines before falling into a strangely proggy synth and guitar duet that morphs yet again into a psychedelic garage groove. Banjo and electric guitar briefly jostle for prominence in the early moments of “Breaking Windows Everywhere,” a track that carves out a slice of pure pastoral shoegaze. Still, while the constant tug-of-war inherent in the structural drama of the arrangements occasionally gives way to surprisingly conventional moments such as Midwestern country-rock balladry of “Amy” and the conventionally hooky Doug Martsch-ish spotlight filling guitar solos on “Silent Like Hands.” And while they’re only passing moments, they offer compelling evidence of the band’s country-rock starting point.
Ultimately, The Angel of the Squared Circle is another step toward solidifying a sonic identity for the Pedal Steel Transmission. Enervating and endlessly imaginative, the set careens back and forth between the dual poles of emotion and drama, walking the line between balancing restraint and breaking down in guitarcentric over-emoting. What they succeed at most convincingly is making a suitably loud and distinctive noise, having the foresight to temper it with enough textural contrast and conceptual audacity that the whole emerges as much more substantial than its parts.