On first listen, one might mistake the Pica Beats as just another of Seattle's current crop of rootsy, trad-folk revivalists. Singer and songwriter Ryan Barrett grew up in Vermont working summers on an organic farm; the band's songs are mostly acoustic, frequently accented with subdued vocal harmonies and seemingly rustic instrumentation; and their sophomore release and first for Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art (themselves no strangers to the folkies), Beating Back the Claws of the Cold, has its share of pastoral or old-timey imagery.
But what separates the Pica Beats from these bearded would-be mountain men and rural hollerers is a certain twee quality—listen closely, and it's clear that Barrett and his band are as much Slumberland as they are back-to-the-land.
Strictly speaking, twee is an insult. Merriam- Webster's derives the word from British baby talk for "sweet" and defines it as "affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint." In the '80s, however, an international underground of bands, labels, music journalists, college-radio DJs, and fans conspired to scrub the word of its negative connotations and reclaim it as a banner of indie pop.
The Pica Beats' arrangements have the kind of endearingly shambolic quality—these are home recordings that want to sound like home recordings—typical of twee pop, making up what they lack in studio polish with a toy chest full of odd instruments (or their synthesized equivalents) and a judicious use of coy male/female vocal interplay (à la Belle and Sebastian or Architecture in Helsinki).
If their recordings sound like a handful of orchestra geeks left unsupervised in the band room, their songs read like the work of a library shut-in. The band's press sheet describes Barrett as a "hyper- literate" songwriter; music blog The Catbirdseat predicted that, "lazy writers writing about the Pica Beats will probably use the words 'Neutral Milk Hotel' or 'Decemberists'" (this is a fun little dodge—a way to bring up these very comparisons while preemptively calling out others who might do the same).
Barrett does write fanciful nonlinear narratives full of sepia-toned photographic details. "Hope, Was Not a Smith Family Tradition," whose opening lines are both maudlin lament and rim-shot-worthy punch line ("Hope was not a Smith family tradition/Neither was coming home sober with your paycheck intact"), tells the tale of a downtrodden everyman family. "Shallow Dive" recalls an "orphan suicide" in grim detail. "Cognac & Rum" is a kind of sideways sea chantey.
He also deploys the kind of precious references that are liable to land a band on Stuff White People Like. Pica, for one thing, is a rare disorder in which people eat hard-to-swallow stuff like dirt, rocks, or nails. Elsewhere on the album, Barrett drops the following antiques and triple-word scores: hikikomori (a Japanese phenomenon of extreme social isolation), Ponzi schemes, Bakelite, paper dolls, colonies, golems, princes, kings, queens, tetanus, lockjaw, an orphan girl hanging herself by piano wire, and a whole pantheon of Egyptian deities.
"I tend to write the lyrics to a song in one burst, really fast," Barrett says. "That way I self-censor less, and I think what comes out is more honest. After I finish, I try not to analyze what I've written."
Which is hard to believe, as his lyrics reveal a mind deeply interested the art of songcraft and perhaps even the criticism thereof. On "Summer Cutting Kale," the titular verse reads like a critique of an earlier draft: "How failed was that verse that never nailed/The overcast and the summer cutting kale." On "Shrinking Violets," Barrett sings, "So you got the courage now/To write a love song without one metaphor." Funny, because through Beating Back the Claws of the Cold Barrett displays a gift for resonant if intentionally enigmatic metaphors. "Shrinking Violets" follows the previous verse with "It's a power drill/It's a carbide cone with a sharpened edge/And an electrical cord"; the melancholy Egyptology of "Poor Old Ra" gives way to the song's driving, aerial refrain, sung in male/female rounds by Barrett and guest vocalist and oboist Ashlee Hunter: "I am the tension/You are the tightrope."
"When I was younger, I wanted to write the most complex songs with the most complex lyrics," Barrett recalls. "And it was a train wreck. I'd write so many lyrics in a song that I couldn't actually sing them and get them all out. So I've gradually been reining that in, but I still like wordplay and things that are difficult to pronounce correctly. I think I've gotten to a good balance of catchy melody and lyrical complexity."
Barrett began writing songs as the Pica Beats in 2005 while still living in Vermont. In 2007, he moved to Seattle and released the essentially solo debut album All Mysteries Solve Themselves. Later that year, a full band began to crystallize with the addition of drummer Colin English (formerly of synth-wavers Infomatik).
"I'd show him a new song, he'd record drums, and then I'd do most of the instrumentation and backing tracks," Barrett says. "If I needed horns, I'd call a friend. There are a whole lot of people on there."
Beating Back the Claws of the Cold is full of bedroom-sized symphonies, with Barrett's singing and guitar surrounded by scrappy percussion, piano, bowed bass, synthesized strings and horns, oboe, and even sitar (the band is currently looking to add a marimba to their live show). But at the center of this collaborative recording process are Barrett's singular songs, which strike a tightrope walker's balance between labyrinthine lyrics and maddeningly unforgettable melodies. There are too many great moments on the album to unpack here—pretty much every song has at least one skin-tingling turn. As its name suggests and its overriding tone confirms, this is a perfect autumn album, bleak but hopefully huddled against the chill—"Summer Cutting Kale" seems to long for both some lost idyllic life and merely mourn the passing of the season ("gotta reach her with the green and gold that's been sold downriver"); the outstanding "Poor Old Ra" is an elegy for the sun god ("Atet sunk down somewhere off the coast of New Brunswick or the arctic/Sektet sunk with Horus stoned at the wheel/With every oil slick and passing barge, the chances that you are goes down").
Since the album's recording, Barrett has recruited more members through classifieds and friends of friends, filling out the band's lineup with keyboardist-bassist (and Hollow Earth Radio cofounder) Garrett Kelly, Adam McCollom (who joined just in time to add keyboard tracks to otherwise-finished songs), backup vocalist/percussionist Alice Sandahl (who joined just weeks ago). Barrett describes the lineup as, "for the time being, very solid."
At a recent in-store performance at the Ballard Sonic Boom, the band seemed plenty solid, if maybe a little mismatched. Barrett, Kelly, and English are either scruffy/Northwest or nerdy/indie types, wearing beanies and horn-rimmed glasses and secondhand slacks; McCollom and Sandahl are more conventionally striking stage presences, looking like professional indie rockers, sharply dressed and with stylish haircuts. The latter flanking the former on the small, crowded stage made for a stark contrast. Sandahl's voice, too, was brighter and more confident than the album's female vocals (sung by Ashlee Hunter and Christina Antipa), with none of their wispiness or affectedly feeble quavering.
But Barrett remains perfectly, nonpejoratively twee ("dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint"). He was soft-spoken, even in front of the small crowd, mumbling and trailing off in his between-song banter. When the band launched into their first song, the assembled instruments initially drowned out his singing; the sound guy had to rush to the mixer to turn him up.