The first word Rob Crow sings on Information Retrieved, Pinback’s first album in five years, is “and” – a conjunction, following on from what came before. If Crow’s razor-sharp, mathematically precise guitar strokes didn’t already give it away, his opening lyric does: this is not the sound of a Pinback revolution, nor is it even much of an evolution. Information Retrieved picks up exactly where Autumn of the Seraphs left off in 2007.
Ostensibly, Pinback is still Rob Crow’s “main” project, in so far as it is where he sells the majority of his records. Crow is not a musician afraid of the unknown; his experimentation and genre-wandering in his extra-curricular work has taken him from the crude mock-metal of Goblin Cock through to a band based around a 1970s toy organ in Optiganally Yours, yet he has always played Pinback with a consistently straight bat.
Even in simpler times, Pinback made music that sounded like it came from a simpler time. There is an effortless nostalgia about their sound, though unlike most backward-gazing bands of recent years, Pinback’s nostalgia seems to be for little in particular, aside from their own catalogue. The mechanical interplay between Crow’s guitar and Zach Smith’s pace-setting bass creates structures that you hear once and feel like you’ve been familiar with your whole life, riffs so catchy you wonder why no-one came up with them before. That the band started out using a drum machine in lieu of a live drummer is unsurprising – even later works carry a robotically produced precision.
When this works, as it did on 2005’s Summer In Abaddon, the results are wonderful. Abaddon is a record teeming with ideas, with as much going on beneath the surface to sustain your interest as big immediate hooks to draw you in. When it is less successful, as on Seraphs, Pinback’s formula begins to seem exactly that: formulaic to the point of predictability, offering melodies with immediacy and a superficial sheen but with little follow-through, and ultimately a lack of urgency and warmth.
Information Retrieved falls somewhere between the two. Opener ‘Proceed to Memory’ is textbook Pinback at their best, the kind of song you’d use to induct newcomers to the cult of Crow. Subtle shifts of tone from verse to middle-eight, from middle-eight to chorus, put you on unsteady footing for the first listen; revisits are rewarded with a satisfying complexity hiding behind the gloss. Crow’s lyrics are as elliptical and evasive as ever, giving away just enough to convey the song’s atmosphere and overriding emotional theme – “Soon all you’ve have is that memory/And then you won’t even have that memory”.
The jaunty ‘Diminished’ is perhaps the most unusual track on the record, sounding remarkably similar – both musically and lyrically – to an In Rainbows-era Radiohead. The track builds itself slowly around a simple piano arpeggio, toward a final soaring bon mot of the kind that Thom Yorke has made a career of delivering: “It shouldn’t be so hard to have a nice day”. It’s the closest Pinback come here to doing something that doesn’t sound like Pinback, which frustratingly throws the record’s failings into stark relief.
At its weakest, Information Retrieved simply sounds lazy and complacent, which is inexcusable for a record five years in the making. When reliability is one of your band’s great strengths, it is a tightrope walk to ensure that this doesn’t slip into predictability and become one of your great weaknesses. For about half of this record’s runtime, Crow and Smith sound bored with their own work, like they’re waiting for something to jolt them back to life. “I want a way to begin”, Crow sings on ‘A Request’, a song that never really does begin, just ambles into the record and meanders out again, leaving no mark on anything. ‘A Request’ raises the question: is it acceptable or justifiable for a song about boredom and frustration to be so boring and frustrating?
When it hits, Information Retrieved contains some classic Pinback material, and it is conceivable that a newcomer would find much to admire here. Having waited five years for merely less of the same, however, it would be surprising if fans have the affection for Information that they have for previous records. Perhaps Rob Crow needs to go away and record another bizarre album on a toy organ or sing some more metal songs about children’s TV characters to shake things up again. It is not often that you hope a band will stop playing to their strengths, but Information Retrieved leaves Pinback needing to do something unpredictable.