Review Summary: A great introduction to what Pinback are capable of. Offcell offers us five skillfully crafted tracks of indie rock that leave little to criticize.
Pinback is one of those few bands whose EPs impress me even more than their full-lengths. To their credit, this is not to say that their proper albums aren’t worth celebrating. But for me, if I’m in a Pinback sort of mood, I’m heading for one of their shorter, more concentrated works. Their 2003 offering Offcell sits right in the meaty part of their career where they put out three phenomenal EPs and two stellar full-lengths in just four years time, not counting live albums. And it stands out as 30 minutes of sonic bliss.
The disc kicks off with “Microtonic Wave”, which sets the mood with a mellow and spacey intro before jumping into a mid-tempo verse. The main theme stays more or less constant throughout, while the band plays around it with vocal harmonies and unusual keyboard timbres. The music and lyrics alike occupy a strange middle ground between what I can only describe as space-age slow dance and mature lullaby. That said, I prefer the speedier live version of this song found on the Too Many Shadows EP.
These images don’t entirely disappear but certainly shift focus with “Victorious D”. Through some clever effects, the vocals still sound other-worldly. On the other hand, this track’s main innovation lies in the bass, which oscillates between laid back and aggressive passages. These near-outbursts keep interesting what could have been a very boring song.
Bifurcating the EP, the title track is an indisputable highlight. Like the previous song, “Offcell” weaves together dissimilar pieces. This time there are three - a highly repeatable mid-tempo guitar riff, a funky and angular bass part, and another spacey passage. The first takes up the bulk of the song’s four and a half minutes, and serves as the base for the layered harmonies that Pinback are perhaps best known for. Numerous vocal, guitar, bass, and keyboard parts pile on to form a soothing wall of sound that one could listen to for hours.
“B” marks the most upbeat of Offcell’s contents. It starts with the catchiest melody we’ve heard so far, a real lesson in syncopation, alto singing, and guitar-bass interaction. Later on the band finally decides to rock out like they’d hinted at wanting to in the opening tracks, alongside some more dramatic sections. The result is glorious, and ends with a section worth describing in some detail. They strip away everything except singular bass, guitar, and vocal lines, and bring the tempo down a bit. Over a minute and a half or so, they add speed and more instruments to the mix, showing us just how much difference just one additional simple harmony part can make. We hear some beautiful background vocals along the way, then end with a bombastic climax – as bombastic as Pinback gets, anyway.
Offcell closes with an 11-minute epic entitled “Grey Machine” that I’ll admit to skipping on most of my listens to this album. But that skipping is undeserved. The song centers around a straightforward keyboard line that conjures pictures of being peacefully lost in space. Halfway through the tables turn to a sweeter piano melody with vocals above that send us off feeling warm on the inside.
All in all, Offcell is a therapeutic listen. It touches all the basic emotions while still being grounded in pleasant (but not cheesy!) melody. There are few, if any, pyrotechnics to speak of, but none are really necessary. If I were to offer any advice to Pinback newcomers, I’d say save them for night listening, and listen with a solid pair of headphones so one can pick out and appreciate the masterfully woven harmonies. And for the impatient listeners, just start with “B” and go from there.
Recommended Tracks: Offcell, B