aural pleasure 

The Life of Pillows
Marcus Rubio
(Self-released)

Marcus Rubio’s The Life of Pillows begins with a portentous two-chord figure straight out of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” swiftly elevated into overdrive by his own interweaving violins. This opening establishes a working pattern for the 18-year-old indie-pop phenom.
Rubio’s songs are invariably simple and repetitive, and most of the musical action comes from the painstaking arrangements, the way he layers violin, piano, glockenspiel, and the rest of the kitchen sink onto his adolescent
musings.

Despite such baroque flourishes, Rubio’s tunes usually feel skeletal and almost uncomfortably intimate, and they place heavy stress on his lyrics and voice. As a lyricist, he’s not yet the
storyteller required to put across an intended pop opera (Pillows is the tale of an alienated teenager who succumbs to a nervous breakdown), but he has a way with a phrase (“We almost had you written off as some kind of David Hasselhoff”) and a winning, sideways perspective on life’s rich pageant. It’s hard to think of another songwriter who would share his — or his character’s — fifth-grade obsession with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, extol the spiritual power of socks, or conjure anything as charmingly callow as the following: “Do you remember that Kerouac novel called Doctor Sax?/ Well, I never read it, but I heard it was awesome to the max.”

Rubio’s voice puts across such lines with the right mix of irreverence and wide-eyed wonder, but it’s a limited instrument at this stage: thin and whiny, with an unstable sense of pitch. The most effective songs on Pillows are full-band blowouts like “Blind” and “Photo Falling (Word Falling),” where the music has enough weight and power to take some pressure off the vocals, enabling you to zone in on sharp, unexpected lines rather than every deep breath and syllable. Likewise, his wild, avant-garde Greek folk song treatment for “From Across the Hall” transports the song from high-school classrooms and cafeterias into the protagonist’s bizarre dream world.

Not altogether successful on its own terms, Pillows works best as a key step in the development of SA’s most gifted teenage auteur.

— Gilbert Garcia

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Autumn of the Seraphs
Pinback
(Touch & Go)

For a decade, San Diego’s Pinback has refined its blend of rubbery indie-rock rhythms and languorous melodies, layered in tasty textured sheets like phyllo dough.

Their second full-length for Touch & Go, and fourth overall, Autumn continues to enrich the mix with insistent hooks and distinctive arrangements. It’s still something of a grower, like its predecessor, Summer in Abaddon. The wrought constructions take a while to digest, softened by generous dollops of harmony, and finally eased by familiarity with its nooks and circuitous routes, like winding back-country roads. As intricately crafted as the compositions are, there’s so much melody embedded in them that they approach similarly-minded pedigreed prog-poppers Built to Spill and even, at times, ELO.

Particularly effective are the interlaced vocal lines of Pinback principals Rob Crow and Zach Smith on tracks such as the slinky, piano-abetted “Devil You Know,” the shimmering “Bouquet,” and the nervy “Good To Sea,” whose icy synth and percolating bass line recall Jets to Brazil’s first album. The latter’s an album highlight, along with “Barnes,” in which Crow and Smith trade verses, alternately tense and dreamy, melting together in a nougat chorus. It showcases their proficiency at blending jumpy post-punk and indie-pop tunefulness.

Like the music, the elliptical lyrics take time to unravel, as they’re more suggestive than strictly narrative. This is exactly how they work musically, with shards and strands, tied, hot-glued and spit-shined until they’re an oddly evocative quilt whose seams don’t show.

— Chris Parker


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