n paper, the Zincs’ 2004 six-song EP, Forty Winks with the Zincs, propositioned the band as an insomniac’s dream. It even included two covers of narcoleptic odes—This Heat’s “Sleep” and “Good Night” by the Beatles. It was a slight misnomer, of course; though the EP, and its subsequent full album follow-up, Dimmer, were both suitably mellow and moody, they were more cognizant than comatose. And though Black Pompadour opens with a short, snoring organ drone, it’s far from tiring. A taut, melodically chiming, tom-heavy set of tunes, it feels claustrophobic yet cozy, like a Japanese pod room piping in a constant flow of Echo and the Bunnymen.
Since the band’s inception as a vehicle for the songs of British-born, Chicago-based James Elkington, the Zincs have graduated from a one-man band with folk affectations to what we find here: a fully fleshed out form, both personally and musically. A four-piece—Elkington (vocals/guitar), Nathaniel Braddock (guitar/piano), Nick Macri (bass/saxophone octet), and Jason Toth (drums)—that only began playing together two years ago, Black Pompadour is the sound of a band that’s already found its feet.
At the heart of the album lays Elkington’s vocals. Although his deadpan traverses a fine line between monotonous and melodic, he’s full of subtle hooks and textural turns of phrase that command the instrumentation, not unlike Smog’s Bill Callahan. The music it sits atop of is as crisp and clear as a freshly starched shirt, albeit one with irremovable stains. And though the songs lack any real peaks or discernable choruses, the Zincs find different ways to finesse their rise and fall, layering instruments and toying with their ebbs and flows, favoring subtle structure over sonic bluster. Echoing this, Nathanial Braddock’s clean lead lines act as a perfect melodic foil to Elkington’s vocals, intertwining, emoting, and stretching the melody long after the lyrics die away.
Ostensibly a guitar-based record, it’s the subtle touches of non-six-string instrumentation that actually add to its hue: the organ undertow of “Head East Kaspar”; the keyboard flourishes that infiltrate the poppy “Coward’s Coral”; “Hamstrung and Juvenile’s” faux-glam opening and the subtle saxophone it segues into; the militaristic drums that propels “Finished in this Business”; and the acoustic accoutrements that accompany the Sparklehorse-paced plod (and I mean that as a compliment) of “Dave the Slave.”
At times Elkington sounds like he’s reading the lyrics from a manual (“Finished in this Business”) while on others (“Lost Solid Colors”) he invokes a baritone that openly invites comparisons to the National’s Matt Berninger. On “Lost Solid Colors” Elkington even echoes the pseudo-lascivious lyrical traits of Alligator, enthusing “I’m so good-looking / I’m gonna tell you what you’re all about.” Whilst on “Finished in this Business” he intones, “In our other lives as models we check ourselves in airport mirrors.”
In contrast to the band’s brooding brand of pop, the lyrics smack of self-deprecation and subtle tongue-in-cheek humor. Amid Elkington’s opaque and ambiguous non-sequiturs (“We’re quails eggs in an air raid / And belong belong belong to none“) and obtuse Malkmus-like musing (“Be still the mumbler with the marcel wave”), lay phrases (“trout-greased crowd” and “cesarean smiles”) sparkle, illuminating the songs with a metaphorical wit. Similarly illuminating is Edith Frost, who sings backup on three tracks, and even a full verse on the shimmering, stripped-down “Rice Scars,” providing a textural antithesis to Elkington’s deadpan delivery.
But for all its sheen and tightly wound wordplay, Black Pompadour won’t grab you in a bully’s embrace—it’s far too subtle for that. Given time though, and a close examination, it reveals itself as a richly executed and textural record—one of the best guitar-based albums of 2007 thus far.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2007-03-23