Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, 'Psychology' RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4
It's common for a funk-jam band to accumulate a following -- or a "flock," as the Baltimore quartet Pigeons Playing Ping Pong lovingly refers to their fanbase -- through live shows. The audience is typically there to appreciate the showy musicianship, follow improvised whims and generally soak up the vibes.
Pigeons, which began nearly eight years ago in a University of Maryland dorm room, took two years to record their second album, "Psychology" (released last Thursday), because the band was busy winning over crowds via a grassroots campaign. (It worked: Pigeons have more than 12,000 fans on Facebook, and played nearly 200 shows last year. Their current schedule shows no signs of slowing down.)
Now comes the hard part for any jam band: capturing the live essence to tape. The band's first attempt, 2010's "Funk EP," was effective but admittedly thrown together quickly (singer Greg Ormont said recently it was recorded in one night). Knowing that their star had risen considerably in a short time (the band headlined 9:30 Club last week), Pigeons were determined to give fans a more refined collection.
Of course, a listener's enjoyment of "Psychology" will depend heavily on his or her penchant for prolonged jam sessions. Pigeons clearly know their audience; why else would they stretch (sometimes unnecessarily so) four-minute songs into six or seven minute pieces? When it works -- say on the album's nearly 10-minute centerpiece "Horizon" or toward the exuberant end of "Time to Ride" -- the group shows its ability to crescendo in charged harmony.
There are moments of overextension, though, which cause the more-relaxed sections to veer into Muzak territory. Members of the flock will argue the ebb and flow of Pigeons' music is essential to the composition, since energized peaks are dull without calm valleys. That's fair and easier to swallow because the music here is often technically impressive.
So perhaps "Psychology" falls a bit flat because of the lyrics. Ode-to-funk opener "F.U." (which includes the Hornitz, a duo of horns from Boston who enliven the track and are missed later) believes it's more clever than it actually is. "Sunny Day," with its cheesy heavy echo effect on the vocals, whines about "how my smiles can turn into frowns." It comes across as empty rhetoric. It's telling the most exciting song here, the danceable disco update "Schwanthem," lacks lyrics all together. It's also the shortest. -- Wesley Case(Handout /July 3, 2014)
When I spoke with Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner earlier this year, we spent most of the time talking about her solo project, the excellent Flock of Dimes. But later in the interview, Wasner noticeably perked up when asked about a pop collaboration with White Life's Jon Ehrens.
"It's some of the best stuff we've ever done," Wasner said. "It's happening more slowly than both of us would like. He's a super talented songwriter. I shine in the pop spectrum more than I was expecting."
The duo calls themselves Dungeonesse, and the first single and video was released today, and it backs up Wasner's claims in an impressive way. "Drive You Crazy" is a skittering dance track that should have no problem getting people out of their seats. The production has a lot going on (busy drums, quick synth stabs), but it never suffocates Wasner, whose voice floats above it all. It's an exuberant track that leaves you wondering, "Is it Friday, yet?"
Watch the video — which was filmed at the Nudashank Gallery in Baltimore and directed by Matthew Yake — above.
The "Drive You Crazy" b/w "Private Party" 12-inch single will be released on Dec. 11 via Secretly Canadian.
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ABOUT THE BLOGGER
Wesley Case is a features reporter for the Baltimore Sun and b. Since October 2008, he's covered Baltimore's burgeoning music and arts scene, including b cover stories on Dan Deacon, Beach House and Rome Cee. Between March and August 2011, he launched and wrote a pop music blog for b called Louder Now. He now handles the Midnight Sun nightlife blog.