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However, few of today's legions of would-be Brian Wilsons are able to coax such evocative and accomplished sounds out of their Tinkertoy home studios. Pinback recordings often recall the orchestral giddiness and helium buoyancy of the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin or Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs. They have an edginess, though, that aligns them more closely with the spring-loaded barbed-wire hooks of Modest Mouse or even Fugazi's more recent expeditions into arctic, deconstructed pop.
As for musical influences, Crow cites "old Dischord punk, really fast math metal, Japanese noise, the first Roches album and old kraut rock -- not that new fake shit." The Minutemen must surely reside somewhere on that list as well. Pinback has a song called "Hurley," ostensibly named after George Hurley, drummer of that apocryphal punk-funk agit-prop group of the early '80s. The programmed drumbeat is a hit-for-hit mimic of the Minutemen's "It's Expected I'm Gone." Crow also has certain aesthetic prerequisites that any potential bandmate must meet. "I usually make sure that they've heard Slint, the Shaggs and Captain Beefheart," Crow says. "If they don't understand the beauty of those things, they'll probably just hate playing with me."
Apparently there are a lot of musicians in the San Diego area who abide by this strict regimen. Crow has about a half-dozen side projects going on at any given time. Currently, he's working with Thingy, a group he began with his ex-Heavy Vegetable partner Elea Tentuta that's perhaps even quirkier than Pinback; Optiganally Yours, a vintage keyboard duo; Physics, a loose conglomerate concentrating on heavy minimalist improvisation; Snotnose, a troupe Crow describes as "metal haiku guerrilla street theater"; and Fantasy Mission Force, which he christens as "punk fucking rock." And yes, he's also a solo artist, with two acoustic-oriented albums in circulation in addition to the two full-lengths, two singles and one EP he's already got under the Pinback belt. Crow doesn't take his Gordon Lightfoot proclivities that seriously, though. "I can't believe that anyone but me likes this stuff, but I find it very therapeutic," he says.
Pinback remains Crow's primary focus. The band is touring now as a quartet (which includes Brent Asbury and Three Mile Copilot Tom Zinser on drums), and its diligence and ubiquity have left it poised on the cusp of indie stardom. "All I've ever wanted to do is play music I like and record records, so much so that I don't have much time for anything else," Crow says. "I'm broke all the time. It's very depressing, but it's not like I have any choice. I know that this is what I'm supposed to do with my life, and I never expected anything from it."
Some of this resigned depression spills over into the subject matter of many of Pinback's songs. In "Tripoli," Crow's breathy tenor peals with a singsong creepiness, "Sad I'm gonna die/Hope it's gonna happen later/Later than I think." In the self-fulfilling "Concrete Seconds," he waxes prophetic that "Everything I say to you will probably come out wrong anyway," while the narrator of "Crutch" confesses, "Something's wrong with my soul/My heart beats from the outside." The third-person detachment of "West," however, is perhaps the most hauntingly resonant: "Girl looks so sad/Hair slicked back with raindrops from her walk outside/It's good to be sad sometimes."
Not all of Pinback's oceans are filled with tears. Some overflow with the plain ol' ichor of death and horror. One too many late-night viewings of The Poseidon Adventure seems to have fueled such ghastly aquatic phantasmagoria as "Boo," wherein a drowning sailor laments, "Inside this leaking submarine/The hull is closing in/The water is above my ankles/And I still can't get you off of my..." In "Lyon," a distraught lover coldly pronounces sentence on a failed relationship: "We'd drive a cop car into the lake/And hold our breath for two long boring days."
So do Crow and Smith harbor some deep obsession with the sea? "Yeah, we like water. We like to spend as much time in the ocean as possible," Crow says. Hopefully not as much as the characters in their songs.
In many respects, the dark, briny deep is analogous to outer space. No air. A lack of gravity. The last frontiers. The loneliest of deaths. Pinback explores both of these backdrops unflinchingly, as well as that unconquered emotional dystopia of inner space. The band's music mirrors such imagery. Its songs are warm, organic messes armored in icy digital precision, much like a deep sea diver in a bathysphere or a space-walking astronaut in a pressurized suit. Still, that leaves a big question unanswered: Are the members of Pinback truly such huge science-fiction fans?
"Oh yeah, totally, we both love science-fiction movies," Crow says. "There's just so few good ones. Star Wars, the Aliens movies, maybe Silent Running...and of course Dark Star. We'd watch it over and over again while we wrote and recorded." Crow backs this up with documentation: The song "Rousseau," off the band's eponymous debut disc, samples a line of monologue spoken by Sergeant Pinback, portrayed in the movie by a young film student named Dan O'Bannon who would go on to become the acclaimed screenwriter of Aliens and Total Recall. His character, a janitor mistakenly sent on a twenty-year voyage across the galaxy to demolish unstable planets, wails in listless desperation, "I do not belong on this mission, and I want to return to Earth!"
But why Pinback's particular affinity for such an obscure, sketchy, low-budget rocket flick? Crow sums it up best: "It's just a bunch of bored people in space...kind of like we are."