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Palomar - All Things, Forests

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Artist: Palomar

Album: All Things, Forests

Label: Misra

Review date: Mar. 23, 2007

All Things, Forests, Palomar's first album in three years (and the first since ex-label Kindercore exploded leaving Revenge of Palomar in limbo until it was picked up by Self-Starter Foundation), is a giant step up for this very likeable band. It's a much more mature outing than anything this estrogen-fueled foursome has delivered before, almost shockingly so. A band that's always been dogged by the "cute" tag is all grown up here with slower, more cynical and biting songs. Arrangements still rely heavily on stinging late-1990s guitar hooks and close harmonies, but seem denser and more weighted. Even singer Rachel Warren seems to be pitched half an octave lower here. It's like your bubbly kid sister has, overnight, turned into a femme fatale…disconcerting but, hell, good for her.

Palomar's lone male is the drummer, Dale Miller, caught on opening cut "Bury Me Closer" pounding a staccato beat on an upturned bucket. He's not an original member – no one but Warren was around for the band's debut in 1999 – but seems integral to the band's slyly pop sound. Without him, and bass player Sarah Brockett's muscled rhythms, the giddy harmonies would drift aimlessly, the wry sarcasms would lack bite. Like Imperial Teen, Palomar weds sugar-addict hooks with nervous, skittery beats. First single "Our Haunt"'s propulsive, uneasy verse keeps you on edge, despite the close thirds sweetness of the vocals, a submerged tension that's only relieved in the guitar breaks. It's a wary, knowing sort of pop seduction that calls up 1990s girl bands like the Breeders and the Throwing Muses.

All this will be old news for people who are familiar with Palomar's catalog, but there are a couple of new elements in All Things, Forests that make this record the best ever for the Brooklynite band. The first is Rachel Warren's voice, which is huskier, deeper and more expressive than before. One of the fun things about writing Palomar reviews up to now has been unearthing high-pitched comparisons for Warren (I still feel kind of bad about that Minnie Mouse dig) … but here she leaves all that behind with a soft, melodic rasp. A little like Kelly Deal, a little like Dolores O'Riordan, a little like Cub Country's Lisa Marr, she's come into her own as a singer, whether slipping into tight harmonies or whooping out the exuberant choruses.

The second thing is the subject matter, which, perhaps due to label disasters, perhaps due to personal experiences, is whole lot more deeply felt than on previous albums. The edgy sweetness of "How to Beat Dimension" encases lyrics about people who don't change and hard work that doesn't pay off. It's not downbeat exactly – there's a lopsided grin to this album – but it acknowledges a struggle. Then there are the life-in-a-rock-band songs like "You're Keeping Us Up,” fond but exasperated takes on a thankless decade or so of touring. The chorus of this song is cheerleader material, more like the Palomar of II or III than anything else on this album, but it's essentially about singing and playing through exhaustion. And men, who cluster around the stage at Palomar shows like sharks at feeding time, get their come-uppance here, too, in cuts like "Top Banana." All drum machine and giddy keyboards and girl-group euphoria on the surface, it's a damning portrait of an untrustworthy charmer. "Backstage, no one wants to be not in his circle of friends / no matter what the state, who he likes or he hates / who he wants to and wills to he bends," the song goes, so specific that you're tempted to have a look at Palomar's touring partners to figure out who it is.

Like all Palomar albums, this one is an instant party, as immediately likeable and accessible as the others. And yet it's somehow more serious and weighty and important than the ones that preceded it. No one ever let the old girl groups grow up...once they were through singing about boys and cars that was it. Palomar are still learning new things about life, themselves, songs and people, and All Things, Forests is all the stronger for it.

By Jennifer Kelly

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