Pretty Girls Make Graves
f the sophomore album usually tests whether the musicians’ brilliance was a fluke, the third measures what is done with whatever currency is earned from prior work. If successful, the musicians are bestowed new freedoms in the form of lionized producers, tours with other and bigger groups, a bigger listening base, and, ergo, bigger distribution. And what of the failures, the flops? What do they have?
Pretty Girls Make Graves passed the sophomore test, releasing the trenchant and triumphant The New Romance. Since then they’ve reaped the rewards—mostly through touring with groups like Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, and Bloc Party—culminating with Élan Vital, which was produced by Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Destroyer). New to the band’s roster is keyboardist Leona Marrs, and while she’s not solely culpable for the album’s less than inspired results, it feels as though the group struggles to orient themselves around her.
The changes are most acute when Marrs appears on tracks like “The Number,” “Domino,” or “Selling The Wind.” There you can actually sense the group relenting in deference to the rather anemic keys lest they overwhelm them completely. It’s a forced adjustment, one that feels like an unnecessary check against the energy that made their last two albums so outstanding. In sacrificing force for subtlety they don’t fully represent either.
As it goes for the music, so do the vocals: Andrea Zollo previously excited because her voice always bordered on collapse; shriveled up like a small animal backed into a corner, it roared to action with a most unexpected spirit. Her singing wasn’t meant to be elegant or refined, it was meant to conjure a far more immediate, essential appreciation. On Élan Vital a general constancy is of major emphasis here, although you can still sense quite a bit of the rough edges marking their prior two albums. Yes, they still have their fists in the air but their fingers aren’t clenched nearly as tightly and Zollo, rather than concentrating energy for a few spikes, spreads it thinly over everything.
Yet buried under all this subtlety and experimental machinery exists the throbbing, visceral humanity of their work. “The Nocturnal House” juxtaposes Zollo’s treated vocals with a refrain of vociferous screams from the guitarists and “Bullet Charm” ends the album with almost all cylinders firing: the bass lines protrude with muscle, while the guitars cut the air with gusto. While a letdown, Élan Vital at the very least matches basic expectations of the members’ capabilities.
So is the album progress or retardation? Well, some of both. They’re obviously enjoying success and using it to explore a wider musical range, but they haven’t translated that admirable tendency into a coherent vision. The unseen advantage of a sophomore slump is the possibility of reinvention and a reconsideration of what exactly the band wants. The unseen disadvantage of a sophomore success—as evidenced by most of this album—is the intention of progress without its full actualization.
Reviewed by: Ayo Jegede
Reviewed on: 2006-04-12