Patrick Tape Fleming, Devin Frank, Joe Terry, and Don Ephraim, the four permanent members of the Poison Control Center, are spread across four cities in three states in two time zones. But listening to their upcoming album Sad Sour Future, you’d never know it. The band recorded this lush new record – which is to be released on Afternoon Records in April 2010 – in one week in May 2009. In the months preceding their recording session, the band members sent home recordings of their new songs to one another. Each musician added their own parts to the songs, experimenting with a variety of instrumentation, vocal arrangements, and other sonic touches. By the time they assembled to record the tracks, they were ready to put their various parts together into a coherent whole. And, from the sound of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if they also allowed themselves to do some experimenting once they were all finally together laying down the tracks in the studio.
Sad Sour Future, their third full-length album as a four-piece band, is the Poison Control Center’s most diverse, dynamic and pleasurable collection yet. Considering the range and power of their last record – the unforgettably tuneful “A Collage of Impressions” – that’s saying something. The upcoming release shows the band at the height of their musical and songwriting powers. And though the record includes tracks that reflect the power and energy of their remarkable live shows, the most resonant songs show the band’s sweeter side.
The first half of the album is overall the more forceful side of the record, the beats more driving, the bass more resounding. There is also greater incorporation of electronic and ambient noises that match well with Devin’s penchant for semi-dissonant solos and mood-altering guitar lines (which will re-emerge at the very end of the album on “Baron in the Tree”). The second half of the album takes a deep inhale and relaxes into a gorgeous suite of songs. A few of the songs, like the lovely “Two Isles” and “Eye,” are built around the piano as much as the electric guitar. Patrick’s song “Start the Revolution” picks up the guitar and starts to get the tempo moving, and a simple but highly effective tambourine drives home the rhythm and makes the song groove. (If you don’t respect the power of the tambourine in pop songs, listen to Rubber Soul again. Right now.) “Start the Revolution” is the song from this album most likely to enter the PCC sing-along canon, joining the reverend company of PCC classics like “Don’t Go,” “Wake Up, Waco,” and the transcendent “Magic Circle Symphony.”
Sing-alongs are one of the hallmarks of the PCC live experience. Singing along allows each person in the crowd to enjoy making the beautiful melodies for him or herself while also creating a family-like feeling of doing something fun together. In their studio recordings, too, the band creates the joyful sound of group singing – which they tend to favor over vocal harmonies – by laying clusters of male voices over one another, like on the chorus of Don’s rockin’ number “Being Gone.” And I imagine that they mean it when they sing it, too: “It’s not easy being gone, it’s not a high, no season high.” On Devin’s funky (funky like Beck, not funky like George Clinton) soul-rock song “Cemetary Glow,” the guys have fun playing with their falsetto range.
The falsettos are just one of a wide diversity of vocal styles on display. Each musician brings his own discernible voice to his own songs. Patrick’s voice emerges huskily from an atmospheric fog of ambient sounds on the aching “Stay Golden” and the vocals grow in emotional force as he comes to the chorus, an expression of reassurance to a lover: “You’re feeling old / stay young, stay gold- / -en, your hands were made for hold- / -in’ mine, all the time, all the time.” The way his phrasing splits the words “golden” and “holding” into two lines is subtly dramatic and makes the most of all four rhymes. The soaring feelings are elevated when Devin’s lead guitar leaps into a short but ringing solo. As the song approaches its end, Joe’s layered trumpet voicings add a rich texture in the background as Don lays down a strong, fat beat to drive the song.
Joe Terry also contributes his distinct vocals – as well as a set of unforgettable melodies – to the album. One of my favorite PCC songs is “Give It a Try” from the 7” EP When the World Sleeps: Joe really lets his voice wail and crack and climb as high as it can on that tune. The result is whacky and childlike, yet deeply affecting for being a liberated exploration of vocal possibilities: he takes his own advice and gives it a try. Joe doesn’t push or strain his voice on “Friends in the Band” from the upcoming album, but he certainly lets his voice explore the vulnerabilities of the song’s subject. The lyrics speak plainly of longing: “Oh, how I miss our friends and how I miss the opportunities that get away.” Though it is one of the shortest songs on the record, “Friends in the Band” is an absolutely perfect pop composition and it encompasses both the aching urge to be with your friends and the simple, life-affirming joy of knowing that soon, if you’re patient, you will meet again and be as happy as children. Joe Terry sometimes reminds me of the accurately named Neil Young, whose voice projects an eternal youthful innocence even as his lyrics speak from the perspective of an old man, or even a sage. In Joe’s voice and in his eyes, you can read both the boyish earnestness of the innocent and the clear-sighted knowingness of the experienced.
“Friends in the Band” will speak to anyone separated from people they love. But more specifically, the song envisions the day when this particular band will come from their various corners of America and reunite to tour. For fans of the Poison Control Center, Sad Sour Future gives a reason to celebrate, because it shows that even though the band is spread across the country, and even though they crafted their songs separately from one another, and even though the record includes a wide range of moods and modes and tempos and styles, they are still so banded together that they can craft a unified and beautiful record with that PCC sound. You know that sound? It’s that potent blend of pop changes, rock dynamics, intelligent songwriting, and, most of all, the genuine pleasure of making music together. That sound makes you smile to yourself and nod your head, as if to say “Yes” to the warmth of the music you are feeling.
Just so you know: Sad Sour Future will be the first full-length Poison Control Center album to be pressed on vinyl. Trust me: this is your number one most desired LP of 2010. Once the needle has met the grooves, you’ll be singing these songs to yourself for weeks. And if we’re lucky, we’ll be singing along with the songs at Poison Control Center shows for many years to come.