When the four members of Pardoner decamped to the studio in February of last year, they had little idea about that session’s fortuitous timing. While the COVID-19 pandemic was making headlines in China and other parts of the world, America was still naively indifferent to the perils posed by the virus.
During a prolific two-day recording session, the San Francisco-based indie rock band banged out the dozen songs that make up Came Down Different, their third album, set to be released on May 12 through Bar/None Records. A few weeks later, San Francisco entered into lockdown, and a few months after that, lead singer and guitarist Max Freeland moved to Vancouver, newly-married and looking for a change of scenery.
“I don’t think any of us have really thought too much about it, but yeah there is a good chance this album wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t get into the studio when we did,” said Freeland. “I mean, we were all living in separate apartments and it wasn’t like we were in each other’s bubbles, so all getting together to record could have been dicey. I left in August for Vancouver. Who knows when or if we would have been able to make that album.”
Although they had no idea about the stakes at hand, the dudes from Pardoner pulled it off, and their fans will be glad they did. Harnessing the same tetchy energy of their two previous albums — which vacillated between righteous outrage and a loquacious, resigned apathy — Came Down Different is the band’s strongest effort to date.
The album toggles between unexpected bursts of white squall with soft, catchy hooks. Listening to it can feel like the meds just wore off — or just kicked in. Either scenario is a treat.
Last month, Pardoner released the album’s first single, “Donna Said,” a slacker-rock anthem that crams about 10 different concepts into one catchy-as-hell tune. Kicking off with a tsunami of ear-blasting distortion that recalls the early work of Wavvves, the track quickly settles into a languorous, woozy pace, evoking DIY greats like Archers of Loaf and Pavement. Careful to not let you get too comfortable, “Donna Said” is punctuated by the occasional blast of Sonic Youth-inspired feedback. At the center of it all is Freeland’s disaffected yowl; when he sings, “I got feelings and guitar / I wanna trade them for cash,” the late-stage-capitalist ennui is palpable.
The lead single is already gaining national attention. Rolling Stone wrote up a glowing review in the publication’s regular “Song You Need To Know” feature and Under the Radar magazine helped premier the track with another ultra-positive write-up.
In many ways — beyond the improbabilities of their serendipitous recording session — it is a pleasant surprise that Pardoner have been able to catch the attention of the likes of Rolling Stone and Under the Radar. After issuing their much-hyped debut, Uncontrollable Salvation on San Francisco’s venerable Father/Daughter Records, the band’s follow-up album, Playin’ On A Cloud, was self-released to considerably less fanfare. The group also endured a lineup change, with bassist Will Mervau departing, a shift that was further complicated by Freeland’s decision to relocate.
“I first moved to Vancouver in 2019 for about five months, and that time, we definitely had a conversation about if we were going to keep this going,” Freeland says. “We spoke about it a few times, and decided that it wasn’t undoable, that it could still be a lot of fun, and that we still had a lot of songs left to write.”
The band got a big boost when Colin Burris joined as the full-time bassist in 2019. He had toured with the group following Mervau’s departure, and his willingness to enlist helped solidify the project that had always centered on Freeland, guitarist Trey Flannigan and drummer River van den Berghe.
“We had finished this tour and then pretty soon after Max had left for Vancouver for the first time, so I wasn’t really sure if I was in the band or not,” Burris says. “Then I found out that the three of them had talked about keeping the band going and they asked me if I wanted to join and do another record. So that was really cool for me. After that, we had a really productive two-month session of writing music together.”
Burris met Flannigan, Freeland and ven den Berghe when all four were enrolled at San Francisco State University, and the same familial, conversational atmosphere that was pervasive throughout their first two albums is evident again on Came Down Different.
Freeland generated the skeletal frames for most songs, and the quartet worked together to flesh out those sketches, turning them into the jagged and winding finished products that appear on Came Down Different. Freeland takes lead vocals on most of the tracks, but Flannigan has a starring role on the standout track, “Tranquilizer” and the pair’s tasteful guitar interplay throughout the record speaks to the band’s holistic approach to songcraft.
Pardoner’s second single, “Spike,” which was released on March 3, is reflective of that ego-less, collaborative approach. Like “Donna Said,” the track ping-pongs from one approach to the next, ranging from sharp-cornered guitars a la Gang of Four to tumbling bass riffs to the occasional hyper fast-forward drum solo. Freeland screams, he mutters, and he drops couplets like, “Give a man fish / he eats for the day / give a man two fish / he throws one away,” just one of the many wry comments on consumer culture that can be found on Came Down Different.
“Spike” is a fun song from a fun band on an album full of fun tunes. Anyone who has seen Pardoner live or has been lucky enough to grab a beer with the guys can appreciate that, despite possessing otherworldly artistic skills, they don’t take themselves too seriously. That aura of levity is much needed now, particularly in San Francisco.
The city has always had a cantankerous, bipolar connection with musicians (amazing culture and arts, too-damn-high rents, on-again off-again relationships with the local government), and Pardoner seem to embody that dichotomy. When Freeland sings on “Bunny’s Taxi” from Came Down Different, that the “Sun shines on San Francisco / like a light at the dentist’s office,” he hilariously captures the contradictions of this city — a sometimes beautiful place with a proud history of flying its freak flag that nonetheless has become ground zero for sterile tech culture. San Francisco is a better place when bands like Pardoner are holding up a mirror to show how ridiculous, confounding, and amazing this city can be.
Freeland says he eventually plans to move back from Vancouver (whether that destination will be San Francisco is unclear) and Flannigan, Burris and ven den Berghe say they have no immediate intentions of leaving the city. All four members are eager to tour and play live when pandemic restrictions are lifted, so Pardoner shows could soon be in the offing.
In the era of internet ubiquity, the notion of “local” is so dislocated from previous norms that it probably doesn’t matter where the guys from Pardoner eventually end up, but it would sure be nice to have them call San Francisco home.
Will Reisman is a contributing writer for SF Weekly. Twitter @wreisman