Pinetop Seven – Seven and Seven Is
It’s not so much that Pinetop Seven is like nothing you’ve ever heard, although that’s likely true. It’s more that they’re like everything you’ve ever heard all at once: Schoenberg scores honky-tonk on a 12-tone scale; Mingus plays a carousel; ZZ Top covers Henry Mancini; Peruvian pipes, a rattlesnake and tinkling martini glasses lock into the groove of the office copying machine.
To see Pinetop Seven principals Darren Richard and Charles Kim brim with animation discussing Sergio Leone and, specifically, Once Upon a Time in the West makes all this perfectly clear, somehow. There’s that painstaking pace, a little black humor and, significant above all, a fetish for the most obscure details — lots of them.
“Every tune has a scene or a color,” Kim says of the band’s eponymously titled CD. “We were constantly envisioning something when we made the record.” Communicating verbally about visual images to convey musical ideas characterizes their entire band. Live, Pinetop Seven comprises at least six musicians on banjo, accordion, trombone, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, harmonium, melodica, double bass, a rain stick and drums. “On ‘Money From Home’, for instance,” Kim says, “we told the drummer we wanted something burnt orangy brown and dusty. He got right into it. He knew exactly what we meant.”
On the record though, it’s mostly just Richard and Kim, and an attic. The soft wooden floor and insulation-lined beams mellowed the sound, with an unfashionably rich result — lush, not tinny. “Most of the sound on this record is the attic,” Richard confesses. But it’s no accident; when they didn’t like the sound the attic gave them, they changed the music.
Richard’s voice is an old-fashioned Midwestern croon stretched out comfortably and dusted up a bit — a touch of Jay Farrar, a hint of Gavin Friday. His lyrics are spare, sun-scorched sketches drifting like ashes over the instrumentation, itself a Rocky Mountain forest floor dense with crunchy needles, velvet ferns and bright toadstools.
“The virtue of pop music is that it tells stories,” Kim explains, but Pinetop Seven often eschews pop’s constraints of verse-chorus-verse, so that its music sometimes resembles a casual walk from the key signature to points unknown. The listener can’t help but be engaged, often in different ways at different times. “We try to make our music interactive,” Richard says. “We really worked to make a record that would reward repeated listening,” adds Kim. The rewards include secrets left throughout by a scampering sense of humor — deeply buried samples and distortions, like the banjo sound made from speeding up an acoustic guitar.
Pinetop Seven music is a saddle blanket of Italian baroque tapestry, alt-country al dente, an unselfconscious collaboration of two wide open minds in perfect sync. When Richard mentions how much he loves Gillian Welch’s Revival, Kim says “It’s the emotional intensity that hits you, right there…” He gestures, swiftly bringing his fist down within a hair of Richard’s head. Richard doesn’t even blink.