90 Day Men
he indie world is a hypocritical place. According to its ethos, influences of any sort, be they rap, rock, jazz, or classical, are welcome to exist. Yet in practice, certain genres perpetually struggle to find a place. One such genre seems to be progressive rock, but thankfully, the Chicago-based group 90 Day Men ignore this notion on Panda Park, constructing its challenging songs primarily out of late 70s prog rock influences. The band does more than resist expectations, though; 90 Day Men effectively destroy any preconceptions of what music should be like.
In fact, many listeners will be confused, if not disturbed, by some of what they hear on Panda Park. On “Chronological Disorder”, for example, vocalist Brian Case makes no effort to sing with either melody or comprehensibility, brutally spitting out alliterative phrases in alphabetical order (from “absence and accident” to “temperament totally tame”). Despite its ostensible lack of meaning and initial unpleasantness, though, “Chronological Disorder” reveals itself to be a paranoid work of genius upon further listens.
“Silver and Snow” will likely also startle listeners with its obvious disdain for conventions, notable again in Case’s vocals, which are both Bowie-like and ridiculously over-the-top. This song isn’t as strong as “Chronological Disorder”, but it adds a very interesting dimension to Panda Park. Furthermore, “Silver and Snow” helpfully emphasizes the album’s basic message of maintaining hope against all odds for the many who might otherwise miss out on the often excellent lyrics because they are frequently jumbled or inaudible.
Opener “Even Time Ghost Can’t Stop Wagner” is a six-minute-plus jam with perhaps the most alienating vocals of all, displaying Case as an exaggerated Jeff Buckley more prone to wailing than crooning. The production and instrumentation on this track are absolutely brilliant, especially in the middle section as the drums pound with an increasingly metallic sound and later on, as an elegant exhibition of piano and flute give way to a surge of guitars.
In addition to its experiments with style and its long jams, Panda Park indulges in accessibility as well. “When Your Luck Runs Out” sounds surprisingly like an OK Computer-era Radiohead b-side, featuring ethereal piano and keyboards over a thin layer of acoustic guitars. The song also finds Case at his lyrical best, desperately declaring “This is not superstition, I’m just scared as shit / Everybody is leaving me down at the bottom”, then later resolving “to make a deal / and you can meet me down at the bottom of the lake / we’ll decide”.
Still more wondrous is the album’s elegiac centerpiece, “Too Late Or Too Dead”, which was released as an EP single late last year. Here, Case admits in a defeated whisper, “I am so tired now / Of fighting all against myself” as a beautiful piano line synchronizes itself with steadily marching drums. The song slowly climaxes until Case poignantly declares “I’ll be damned if you take me down with you”.
Panda Park might not be one of the easiest albums to get into this year, but given proper time, it reveals itself as one of the best. Furthermore, 90 Day Men prove themselves to be one of the most courageous and creative bands today with Panda Park, which bends genres and defies classification to an extent that few can match. Indies beware, these guys don’t play by the rules.
Reviewed by: Kareem Estefan
Reviewed on: 2004-05-06