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Emotively Yours


Pretty Girls Make Graves: The New Romance

Matador, 2003

Rating: 3.6



Posted: September 16, 2003

By Laurence Station

A cursory glance at The New Romance's liner notes doesn't hint at any drastic change from punk revivalist outfit Pretty Girls Make Graves' (PGMG) standout 2002 debut, Good Health. Granted, the Seattle-area band moved a few rungs up the corporate ladder (from Lookout Records to well-respected indie label Matador), but Phil Ek (Modest Mouse, Built To Spill) returns as producer and there have been no major shakeups in the band's lineup.

Ah, but then you hear the first track ("Something Bigger, Something Brighter"), and realize a great deal has changed since the group's previous release. PGMG, aside from becoming a tighter, more musically expressive unit, has lightened the strangulated grip that kept Good Health from wasting a single breath. Clocking in at less than twenty-eight minutes, PGMG's debut relentlessly moved from one concussive assault to the next, an intoxicating mixture of rage and stripped-to-the-bone musical efficiency. New Romance lasts nearly forty minutes, and while PGMG certainly won't be accused of making a bloated, Pete Townsend-worthy rock opera, it nonetheless reveals a band growing in confidence -- not afraid to slow down long enough to allow listeners to pick out a particular song's underlying structure, or admire the greater melodic diversity -- something decidedly lacking on the first album.

"The Grandmother Wolf" is a prime example of the band's growth. Starting out as an urgent, revved up rocker, with lead singer Andrea Zollo all but demanding "We want more than memories," this sub-three-minute track would fit in perfectly with the sound and breakneck energy that dominated Health. But then the quintet throws the well-versed listener a curveball, slowing things down to introduce a menacing bass and edgy drum throb behind the vocals. Not only does this shift add more gravity to the song, it reinforces what the opening cut has already established: PGMG has matured as an artistic unit, and isn't above taking considerably more chances with its sound.

This becomes abundantly clear on "All Medicated Geniuses", the best thing the band has yet recorded. From Zollo's biting lyrics ("Our ideas die so quickly", "We all lie so well" -- as she takes self-absorbed "all talk, no action" layabouts to task) to a meaty middle guitar riff that perfectly complements the passionate vocals, it's tough, smart and urgent without getting lost in an overexcited jumble of feedback-drenched squalls or shrieking, banshee-style delivery. "The Teeth Collector" exhibits Zollo at her lyrical best, delivering such cutting lines as "Arrows aim to crack rib cages/ But your venom's weak in my blood," as she grinds an old acquaintance firmly beneath her heel. From these early returns, it seems clear that PGMG hasn't sacrificed an iota of its concentrated fury in the quest to sharpen its songcraft.

Indeed, PGMG is at its strongest when trafficking in one particular base emotion: Anger. It's when the band attempts to emote on a frequency dominated by the likes of Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional that the group gets into trouble. The upbeat positivism propelling "This Is Our Emergency" simply rings false, with Zollo insincerely belting out the anemically anthemic plea "Stand up so I can see you / Shout out so I can hear you / Reach out so I can touch you." And the closing, dear-diary heartbreak of "A Certain Cemetery" opens with the maddeningly corny boo-hoo query, "What do you do when your angels have all flown away?" It's just plain terrible, and thankfully sequenced well out of harm's way.

The New Romance, then, proves a curious mix, an evolving battle between PGMG's best and worst instincts. It's a transition album, moving away from the furious (if redundant) guitar-bass-drum-Zollo assault that fortified Health toward the murky (if commercially viable) geography of the so-called "emo" sound. When done right, this approach can yield positive rewards. But PGMG clearly possesses the talent and integrity to explore hundreds of musical directions. Let's hope the closing moments on The New Romance prove to be merely a pit stop, rather than an indication of the long journey ahead.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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