With some albums, first listens just don't cut it. I mean, hooks sometimes need a little time and just the right environmental conditions to dig in successfully and infect your vital bodily fluids. Hooks can be that way, you know -- so unobtrusive that you don't even really notice that they are there. But I can feel them now. Now, on my third or fourth proper listen, Preston School of Industry's second album, Monsoon (Matador), has finally broken through my imperious walls of expectation, suspicion, association (and probably several other "-tions" of which I'm probably not even aware) to win for itself an appreciative nod.
Whereas that other ex-Pavement guy, Stephen Malkmus, by virtue of his instantly recognizable voice and bizarre lyrical constructions, finds latter-day indie rock success with casual ease, his former compatriot, Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg, has to work a little harder -- without sounding like it. And this time out, Monsoon, his most cohesive and finished work to date, is the happy result.
The bittersweet lead guitar signature of the opening cut, "The Furnace Sun," serves as a preview of coming attractions: arrangements integrating playful guitar skronk reminiscent of Pavement with textural strumming, subtle keys and atmospheric steel guitar (Jeff Tweedy and Scott McCaughey appear on selected tracks), creating modern melancholy pop in the time-tested California singer/songwriter tradition. The strings on "Caught in the Rain" (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin), in fact, are damned near orchestral.
But some of this sounds a bit too much like it was indeed recorded "in a dark, unfinished basement in north Seattle" by multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Kannberg on a solo trip. The production itself is oddly sterile and there is a perceptible, disturbing lack of daring in the performances that keep many of the cuts far from reaching their full potential. Meanwhile, the singer's frequently faltering, meandering vocals have a tendency to give out completely to murmurs and warbles (as on "Line it Up" and "Escalation Breeds Escalation").
Despite such flaws, Monsoon represents a clear advancement for Kannberg who is, at this moment, distancing himself from his past affiliations and forging ahead in new directions (the final track, "Tone It Down," is an example of how he can get it right). It won't necessarily shake you out of your doldrums, but it will sort of nudge you into that better place.