At first glance, Scott Pinkmountain looks like any other unassuming and nondescript indie rocker: unkempt hair, raggedy flannel apparel, Blues Brother sunglasses, and a beard that’s several hours beyond its 5 o’ clock shadow. But oh, how this appearance belies the music on his stunning new LP, The Full Sun. A self-described journey from romantic euphoria into the bleak vacuum of betrayal, Pinkmountain assembled a crack team of no fewer than sixty musicians to construct this unsettling vision of love’s descent into darkness. A graduate of Mills College (where minimalist composer Steve Reich cut his teeth), he indulges every avant-garde whim in the album’s one hour running time without ever straying too far from the path of conventional pop songwriting. With pump organs, orchestras, choirs, bass flutes, and gongs in tow, Pinkmountain takes chamber pop to a whole new level of experimentation. Besides, anyone with the chutzpah to compose a track comprised entirely of overdubbed bassoons deserves your attention.
While Pinkmountain’s songwriting runs an emotional gamut from triumphant joy to sobering despair, the material on The Full Sun veers more frequently toward the latter. The album’s first cut, “Song Of Solomon,” is a rare display of unbridled passion, with Pinkmountain declaring in an ironically plaintive voice how blessed he feels to have his lover at his side. The song is slowly swallowed by its own exuberance as orchestral winds and strings crescendo to a proclamation of unending loyalty.
From here, things turn slowly to the dark side. “I Shall Not Be Released” begins with some earthy jazz harmonies (courtesy of a massive saxophone section) and a wailing trumpet solo that sound like they belong on the soundtrack to some old gangster or pulp flick. As Pinkmountain sings that “you wear your crown of thorns wrapped around your horns,” one gets the feeling that the contentment of the prior track is already beginning to break down.
In the album’s center is where we find the band making its most expansive and agonizing gestures. “Abyssinia” has a cheery diatonic chord progression that is defiantly juxtaposed by a choir and numerous wind and string instruments. Pinkmountain’ classical training is evident here, providing the session musicians with plenty of dissonant harmonies that would probably make Milton Babbit or Arnold Schoenberg proud. The final verse is particularly disquieting, as an ominous bass drone rumbles beneath the lead vocals and a meandering viola. At fourteen minutes, “Unforgiven” is the most epic statement of all. The song takes on many personas, beginning with a Shining-worthy cacophony of strings, before taking a turn into off-Broadway solo territory. At the midway point, Pinkmountain unleashes a J. Mascis-esque guitar freakout that nearly breaks under its own weight. Only in the track’s final four minutes does the orchestra return, this time with some shockingly gorgeous melodies in the double reeds and strings that give way to a more familiar set of cluster chords and an aggressive concert march that Roger Waters should’ve used on The Wall. Following up these behemoths is “Sundowning,” a filler track which sounds like Brian Wilson on one of his darkest days.
For more accessible moments, you’ll need to look to “Lucy” and “You Gave Me This.” Both feature fairly straightforward rock beats, with the former showcasing stereo-panned drums and guitar in between bursts of white noise a la Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But at nearly six minutes in length, it’s not a likely candidate for radio airplay.
Part of the album’s obvious strength is Pinkmountain’s wordsmithing. Though he’ll too often surrender to his love of alliteration, (the fantasy, fortune, and fashion of “Abyssinia” and the snow sloping shoulders of “Lucy”) his skill in painting imagined visions is impressive. In one of the album’s final tracks, he describes his former lover as having a scent like a “dewy mist of orange peels and anise.” His self-pity in “Unforgiven” (I know it’s ugly / I’m so ugly / I’m hideous with rage”) sounds like something Will Sheff could’ve penned for Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy album.
It’s no easy listen, but The Full Sun has a lot to fruit to yield. If mashing up roots rock knowhow and conservatory-style training sounds like this, I’m all ears. Plus, there’s that bassoon choir.