February 13, 2004

90 Day Men "Panda Park"

It’s been said that change is a good thing. And why not? Times, styles, trends, art, technology, politics- although not always for the better, the majority of the more integral aspects of our culture change. Even we manage to change at some point or another- emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, physically, whatever. Without some variety of change in our lives, existence would become stagnant, boring, blasé. With the release of Panda Park, it seems the 90 Day Men have taken this sentiment to heart. Produced by John Congleton of the Paper Chase, Panda Park signifies the group effectively shedding its roots as slightly above-average math rockers with a penchant for weird Slint- or Rodan-like dirges and evolving into something much more vivid and, ultimately, more compelling.

On the 90 Day Men’s previous release, 2002’s To Everybody, the group hinted that they were moving in a different direction with its avid use of piano, difficult, dense textures and fractured, winding melodies. Unfortunately, the record suffered from an unavoidable awkwardness- albeit a rather charming, unavoidable awkwardness- and the end result was an album that merely suggested at the greatness the group would eventually realize.

Beginning with “Even Time Ghost Can’t Stop Wagner,” a piano-driven piece with a melody somewhat reminiscent of the X-Files theme, Panda Park wastes no time exhibiting the 90 Day Men’s newfound sense of purpose. The track weaves in and out, creating a richly textured ambience, as singer Andy Lansagan exorcises his inner Robert Plant. He assumes a more plaintive tone on tracks like “When Your Luck Runs Out” confessing that “he’s scared as shit” while beautiful, haunting melodies collide with synthesizers, astral guitars, and more otherworldly textures
On the single, “Too Late Or Too Dead”, a dark yet surprisingly inspiring piano melody accompanied by drummer Cayce Key’s militaristic snare rolls lay the groundwork for the brilliance ahead. Soon enough, the rest of the band chimes in- bassist Robert Lowe provides an exquisite counterpoint melody, while guitarist Brian Case coaxes ethereal demons from his axe. Towards the end, acoustic guitar and strings appear and the track is catapulted to positively epic heights.

On the closing eight-minute-plus instrumental “Night Birds”, the 90 Day Men’s 70’s pop and prog influences fully bubble to the surface. The track starts off with a Hammond organ hammering out ominous chords as guitars circa The Wall echo in the distance. As “Night Birds” progresses, the tone becomes more optimistic and dawn begins to seep into the shadowy little world 90 Day Men have created for themselves. The musical interplay between each 90 Day Man becomes busier and the textures become richer and more dense- reverb-heavy guitar, handclaps, even a xylophone manages to make a guest appearance- but, surprisingly enough, the melody is never eschewed in favor of a masturbatory sonic workout. “Night Birds” quickly draws to a close and Panda Park manages to finish on a rather graceful note.

Panda Park is one hell of a statement from a group that seems to be on to something truly extraordinary. Sure, there are flourishes of the past littered throughout the record, but playing “spot the influence” would cause one to lose sight of the fact that the 90 Day Men are a band obviously looking to the future. As they continue to evolve with each new release, I’m genuinely excited to see where this ragtag group of Chicagoans goes next.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

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