San Diego native Rob Crow once wrote a clever little ditty called “Listen to This Song, Kill Pigs, and Try to Sue Me.” That was back during his days in Heavy Vegetable, a San Diego indie rock band that played gloriously spastic tunes with tricky chord changes and witty lyrics. Since that band imploded in 1995, Crow has grown less caustic lyrically and more melodic musically.
After Heavy Vegetable, the first new act he formed was Thingy, a quartet that included ex-Vegetable Elea Tenuta on vocals and retained much of the stop/start noise, pretty harmonic vocals, and low-rent lifestyle lyrics of their previous group. Then came Optiganally Yours, in which Crow and Pete Hix wrote songs around the Optigan, a chord organ that Mattel made in the early '70s. The instrument, which also appeared on albums by Tom Waits, Devo, and Elvis Costello, simulated a low-budget sampler, playing scratchy waltzes and loungy cha-chas at the press of a finger. In Optiganally Yours, Crow's lyrics and vocals took on a touch of the macabre, as if he were ringmaster at some freak-show carnival.
Pinback, Crow's collaboration with ex-Three Mile Pilot bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV, is his most recent group, and it's the furthest away from the axe-grinding irreverence of his early work. The duo's songs are decidedly low-key affairs, built around minimal drum machine beats, slithery bass lines, and clean, repetitive guitar riffs. What's most unusual about Pinback is how the members configure their vocals, often juxtaposing two different sets of lyrics — one detailing images of vague dread and the other repeating nonsense syllables like “da da da” — so that the songs are full of both darkness and light. It's a neat trick, using a pretty veneer to disguise the pain and sadness lurking below the surface of the songs. No wonder Pinback named itself after those novelty buttons that look colorful on one side and have a sharp, gray point on the other.