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90 Day Men - Panda Park

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Artist: 90 Day Men

Album: Panda Park

Label: Southern

Review date: Feb. 25, 2004

90 Day Men fashion a wholly original and intriguing sound on their third full-length album. Genre labels only fit awkwardly, and yet unpacking Panda Park involves some knotty twists and turns that might prevent audiences from listening instead of compelling them forward. Fascinating – I don’t love the album, but I respect it as a challenge. In melodramatic songs that move past five, six, and seven minutes long, the group takes another decisive step away from familiar territory.

Panda Park has grand ambitions, and the band builds baroque rock arrangements accordingly. In addition to the troika of drums, guitars, and vocals, the piano, keyboard, and flute assume prominent roles. A xylophone or marimba even finds a comfortable place in the final track. This broad range rarely feels excessive, and the band demonstrates considerable skill in arranging these sounds cohesively. On 2002’s To Everyone:, the vaguely angular rhythm section was the only remaining element that pulled attention away from the group sound. Here, however, a noticeable restraint helps the rhythm section weave into larger arrangements.

A balanced production mix follows through with this idea; often no single instrument or element leads the way. Instead, 90 Day Men form a singular sound from complimentary lines. The instrumental “Night Birds” stands out in this respect. The band utilizes varied elements that make cameos, enriching the overall density, but never overpowering one another. Subtle psychedelic touches (reverberating guitars, anonymous vocal snippits, and scrambled melodies) appear and vanish at will. An easily pulsing keyboard note remains a constant presence, until slight piano ornaments ease in and carry the song from one section to another.

While skillfully done, especially on “Night Birds” and “Too Late or Too Dead,” I actually prefer the Slint-inflected rhythmic weight of the first three tracks on To Everyone:. It provides a more convincing foundation for their arrangements, and for all of its melancholy texture, a more substantial low end could propel the album further forward.

Panda Park pulls out the big guns in the vocal department, displaying three wildly distinct vocal styles that more often alienate than impress: one, a stadium-rock wailing falsetto; another, a raspy monotone; and the third, an overly theatrical vibrato. In “When Your Luck Runs Out” the flimsy vocal undercuts an entrancing keyboard effect. Words are vaguely spoken and semi-sung. In "Chronological Disorder,” the falsetto vocals play an alliterative game that looks fun on paper but sounds pompous. “Silver and Snow” creates the same effect through the hyper-stylized vibrato voice that jumps out from the rest of the band.

When these more extreme vocals intertwine with epic piano chord progressions, the resulting melodrama proves hard to handle. This is not to doubt the sincerity of 90 Day Men. In fact, their most exciting moments spring from their confident combinations of unlikely instruments and song structures to create an expansive, ambitious sound. But they walk a fine line between startlingly fresh songs and caricatured styles that don’t mix well. Undoubtedly, the album’s unique sound will win over some, even if not this reviewer. But their challenges to standard rock practice are always welcome.

By Jeff Seelbach

Other Reviews of 90 Day Men

To Everybody

Too Late or Too Dead + 2

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View all articles by Jeff Seelbach

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