Pictures Of Then – And The Wicked Sea

Pictures Of Then - And The Wicked Sea

Pictures Of Then - And The Wicked Sea

An overwhelming sense of guilt is the only thing I feel as I review this second long player from Minnesota’s Pictures Of Then. Here’s a band that’s had its music featured on two different MTV reality shows and even toured as part of the network’s Choose or Lose Tour. This is also the same lot of musicians who garnered decent billing at four respectable American music festivals, and charmed a majority of the indie music critic coterie in the process. Search the Web, and you’d be hard pressed to find any sort of slander about the quartet that’s been dubbed an “amazing blend of reverent classicism and modern vision.” Which brings me back to my guilt: I am altogether lacking sentiment of any kind toward Pictures Of Then. The group’s sound certainly doesn’t make my jaw drop with inklings of a musical revolution, but on the contrary, it’s not bad music by any marker, either. If I were to invoke a favorite buzz word of the aughties, the only one that comes to mind is “meh.”

Certainly though, these guys deserve substantial credit for everything that they’re able to successfully incorporate into their songs. Listening to And The Wicked Sea, you’re likely to find fragments of Britpop, psychedelic folk, alt-country, and indie rock spread out across its twelve tracks in equal measure. There’s no weak link to be found here; Pictures Of Then sound remarkably confident no matter which zeitgeist they seem to be chasing. The album’s bookends, entitled “A Glimpse Of Dawn” and “Lands Uncharted” respectively, feature the same yearning melody set to divergent styles. The former has its roots firmly planted in the driving thunder of indie rock, while the latter (also the album’s finest moment by a long shot) is a psychedelia-tinged meditation on time and space with ghostly vocal harmonies and lush piano chords. Yet for every genre that finds itself in the capable hands of Pictures Of Then, there’s another group out there who has done it better. That opening track? Were Casey Call’s lead vocals more unhinged, it’d be a fantastic Modest Mouse tune. The closing number recalls Grizzly Bear, recalling Radiohead.

And so it goes. Most of the songs on And The Wicked Sea seem to reference either the wryness of Spoon or the fractured sentimentality of Wilco. “When It Stings,” in addition to being absurdly catchy and fun with its jaunty drumbeat and handclaps, finds Call ironically singing, “We won’t be spoon fed like before.” With gossamer falsetto vocals and a tender acoustic guitar groove, “Ahead” could’ve very well appeared on Wilco’s Sky Blue Blue back in 2007. Featuring an appealing dusty back roads sort of vibe (whistles included), the same argument could be made for “Questions Anyone?”

“Nowhere Is Somewhere,” despite making ubiquitous use of that earworm rhythm from Coldplay’s “Clocks,” is a welcome change in mood from the brash and sometimes acerbic tone of the album’s sequencing. More of a piano driven ballad, the tune works well as an ironic hipster ballad, replete with a chorus that suggests, “I’d rather go nowhere together / than somewhere alone.” If there’s any other track here that bears mentioning, it’s “Wicked Sea.” While certainly not the album’s most affecting number, it helps those who have never seen Pictures Of Then in concert understand the origins of their stellar live reputation. With timbres that suggest, of all things, Van Halen’s “Poundcake,” (remember that drill?), the dual guitar attack of Call and Joe Gamble has a jagged and angular edge to it. With an occasional crackle and howl in the lead vocals, the song flirts briefly with punk rock chaos before quickly segueing into the austere beauty of the final track.

I want so badly to feel something discernible about this band, be it disgust or profound adoration. I suppose then, that my guilt for not falling for them on first (or fourth) listen has given way to frustration, as evidenced within the fragile atmosphere of “Stuck”: “Stuck on this chain / makes it easy to complain.” Meh.