The Pear Traps – s/t EP

The Pear Traps - s/t EP

Lo-fi music can, to some extent, be viewed as a reactionary gesture to the slick and meticulously produced recordings of mainstream pop music.  Though the subgenre’s roots can be traced back to The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan, its crude and occasionally cacophonous textures began to enjoy broader appeal in the 1980’s while commercially viable artists like Madonna and Paula Abdul were embracing the sonic capacities of studio multi-tracking and overdubbing.

Through a series of calculated moves, band likes Pavement, Blur, and Yo La Tengo would go on to partially define their careers by low fidelity music, championing its devotion to authenticity and humanness while never abandoning the focus on melody that was the paramount concern of pop culture’s reigning stars.  But that was the 90’s; living in the prevailing Pro Tools/Auto-Tune era has brought about a whole new lo-fi insurgency, one hell bent on dismantling the digital trickery that has resulted in the vapid yet wildly popular music of starlets like Katy Perry and Ke$ha.  Listening to the likes of current noiseniks such as No Age or Rogue Wave, it becomes readily evident that lo-fi aesthetics are alive and well in 2011.  Affirming though this is, the genre’s 21st century practitioners must also heed the fine line between a genuine commitment to organic sound and a mere replication of sepia-toned nostalgia – the recently piqued interest in Americana music is an example of this.

So it goes with Chicago’s Pear Traps, a five-piece that recorded its new eponymous EP in a bucolic cabin and whose vocalist/guitarist (Bryant Lee Howe) constructs most of the band’s amplifiers himself.  Though the group waves its DIY flag proudly, its music is more in line with acts like My Morning Jacket and Wilco than anything to which T-Bone Burnett’s name might be affixed – 6 warbling tracks of homespun alt-country, infused with a little garage rock grit and plenty of psychedelic echo.

Lead single and album opener “Come Home” announces the Pear Traps’ M.O. immediately with a warm composite of strummy rhythm guitars and crystalline leads.  The grainy timbres of Howe’s vocals peer through the mix, singing with a world-weary sigh, “Through these dreams and plastic hopes / we tie them up with elastic ropes / kinda hurts yeah / but I don’t choke.”  The vocals excepted, the song recalls any number of songs from Sonic Youth’s catalog, where sparkling guitar patterns and a moderate rock groove generate a decidedly hypnotic atmosphere.  “Honestly” shows traces of a surf-rock influence, with a shimmying drumbeat and buoyant guitar riffs not unlike the territory frequented these days by acts like Surfer Blood and Best Coast.

“Safer Than You” highlights the Pear Traps’ unpolished veneer even more, where the muddied production on the guitar and bass lend everything a nebulous haze.  As with the previous tracks, Howe’s vocals stand in isolation from the rest of the mix, his soft-spoken murmurs as cavernous and hollow as the PA system in a 40,000 capacity baseball stadium.  The juxtaposition of such opaque instrumentation and haggard vocals is a sharp one, entrancing in mood but also frustrating in its ability to accentuate the often unintelligible lyrics.

Elsewhere, the EP takes more lighthearted turns; “They Are Not Ours” sports a fetching country jangle while the chiming guitar melodies of “Predictable Kinds of Thoughts” evoke golden memories of summers at the beach.

On a purely textural level, The Pear Traps EP is a joy to take in – it possesses all the same warmth and richness prized by those who still swear by vinyl records and tube amplifiers.  It’s shoegaze music without the bevy of effects pedals, country music without the maudlin twang, and pop music without any bravado.  Sadly though, most of the melodies also get lost in the mix.  It’s not that they’re not there; you’ll just need to listen a little more intently to fish them out of the mix.  In this sense, this is where the Pear Traps are at their most lo-fi, eschewing fastidious studio craft for a product that sounds more like it came off a home recording of buds jamming together back in 1991.  I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something satisfyingly wistful about it.