Picastro
Whore Luck
2007
A



so I guess Liz Hysen's voice gets compared to Chan Marshall's a lot. You can hear the similarity as she pushes it into the higher end of her range at the beginning of “In the Weeds,” the typically elusive fourth track on Picastro's third record. It's called Whore Luck, a phrase that's as densely allusive and yet resistant of outright denotation as Picastro's sound. From the cover, a grotesquely Cronenbergian merging of two kissing faces, to the sparse, discordant sound of the music, the surface signs of Hysen's work is one of sad horror. Picastro's sound has shifted as its composition has over the years, and right now Hysen plies her voice, piano, violin, pump organ etc. alongside cellist Nick Storring and drummer Brandon Valdivia. Not that the band doesn't beef up in the studio; its most famous alumni, Owen Pallett, adds piano to the expansively despondent opener “Hortur” and organ and violin to the nightmarishly groaning “All Erase.” Amidst a small host of other guests, two stand out in opposite ways: Evan Clarke's electric guitar manages to trick several of the tracks here into thinking they're some sort of (very slow, gracefully limned) rock song, while Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart makes a Vincent Price-caliber appearance on the closing cover of the Fall's “An Older Lover, Etc.” as a backing singer who only occasionally makes his way through the curtains of static keeping him from our world.

In case it's not clear yet, Picastro don't make music that settles comfortable into any of the camps formed by their contemporaries. Clarke mainly suggests rock via the mere fact of his electric guitar's electric guitar-ness (paging Fear of Music); a track like “Albanis” still sounds more like Espers after very bad acid or Charalambides' evil cousins more than, say, Black Sabbath (whom Hysen claims as an influence). In fact, the only way Sabbath makes any sense is if you can remember the visceral, creeping discomfort of hearing “Black Sabbath” the first time. We chuckle at first when Ozzy goes “OH no no no NO,” but as the song resolves into a swirling, inescapable circle of damnation, laughter curdles. Or maybe the right cousin is Mordant Music, if they stopped with piecemeal hauntology and moved right on to singing with the ghosts they try to summon up.

But those are spiritual, not sonic cousins. Such is the power of Whore Luck, from the entropically unnerving covers (Roky Erickson's “If You Have Ghosts” as well as the Fall) to the Freight Elevator Quartet-as-revenant ambience of “Towtruck” (used, fittingly enough, in a documentary on surrealism); it makes you reach around blindly for comparison points. It's album-as-nightmare, following its internal logic in strangely fascinating ways and winding up where you least expected it (making Mark E. Smith sound conventional) while unsettling more than scaring. And yet... Picastro's press sheet goes to the furthest lengths I have yet to see to distance the reality of the band from the surface impression of the music here. Hysen professes amazement that listeners might find Picastro sad and hopes that listeners get some sort of company and support from this music.

It's true that as far as negative emotions go Whore Luck is far more disorienting than depressing. “If someone listens to it by themselves and they feel that someone is there—I like that idea,” Hysen says. Freud's notion of the unheimlich—the uncanny, or more literally the unhomely—includes the notion that what we find truly disturbing is not the unfamiliar so much as the estrangement of the familiar. Picastro perform the difficult and unique trick of doing it in reverse, presenting the Weird and then nestling you close to the human heart beating inside. The band claim this record is their most “melodically direct” yet, and sure enough the music is studded with hooks, if inverted ones. But it's still a heady brew for anyone just seeking something nice to listen to after work; the lonely strength of Picastro is that Whore Luck is much more demanding. My knee-jerk response was that the likes of “Car Sleep” and “Stair Keeper” have the making of horror movie music, but if so then it's a markedly restrained and cerebral, even comforting one. If you look at those merged faces on the cover long enough, it stops being repulsive and you start noticing they way they've locked eyes. We can get used to anything; Picastro take a little while, but for anyone with any appreciation of the soothing power of the Weird, it's worth the effort.



Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2007-09-12
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