Review: PAK – Motel

Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy June 29, 2005

If there’s a more dead-on 21st century successor to the mantle of D. Boon than the frenetic Brooklyn-based trio PAK, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.

On an eight-song platter that sometimes feels more like a late-night studio session freak-out fueled by LSD and cigarette smoke than a calculated recording of free-form jazz-punk explosions, the group nails all the requisite Minutemen poses and then some: the fluidity of expression, the angular deliveries, the funky asides, the almost-literal bursts of inspiration, the undercurrent of joy cut with a focused kind of rage.

But to call Motel an exercise in Minuteman-worship is as reductive as calling Double Nickels on the Dime just a good punk rock record.

PAK’s got a whole lot of tricks up its sleeves and, for the better part of the band’s engrossing Ra Sounds outing, it manages to constantly shift the record’s tone through a prism that references everyone from Ornette Coleman and John Zorn to atmospheric post-rockers like Do Make Say Think and the larger-than-life horror show of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. (Museum and Tin Hat Trio violinist Carla Kihlstedt guests herein.)

PAK doesn’t take much time to get things boiling and hits listeners right off the bat with the epileptic grooves of tracks of “You Like It Like That,” the jagged, descending riffs and staccato, “I/can/feel/it/can/you?” delivery of “Heatwave” or the rumbling “Jam Jel Treatment.”

The record’s first four songs, in fact, feel like a rolling series of bursting noises and furiously paced time signatures that do back-flips and then swing 180s at the drop of a dime. It’s hard to tell where one massive cluster of notes ends and the next skittering pattern of drums, bass and guitar begins.

Even in the midst of substantial tracks like “Jam Jel Treatment,” which runs nearly four minutes, the whole band is likely to submit to the force of a blistering and unanticipated scorcher of a guitar solo rather than follow through on what early bridges might suggest is the track’s musical theme.

This isn’t music for hard-line linear thinkers.

It’s also in moments like this that PAK seems to playing with the same ground rules as British post-punkers Giddy Motors, who make no bones about their drive to blur the lines between angular jazz stylings and the fury of American pressure-cooker post-punk. Here, though, the jazz elements are cranked up much louder, with three horn players — alto and baritone saxophonist Ross Bonadonna, trumpeter Tim Byrnes, and tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci — leading the invigorating and borderline-intoxicating sonic parade.

Elsewhere, like on the tight refrains and regimented but funky measures of “The Higher The Elevation The Lesser The Vegetation,” Kihlstedt’s violin is indispensable. On “Every Body Likes You” — a nearly ten-minute mass of wonderfully mangled bridges nailed down to tape at what sounds, at times, like warp speed — it’s an extended mock-rock guitar solo or the blurted-out voices of guitarist Ron Anderson and bassist Jesse Krakow that hide the hooks.

On “Zugzwang,” it’s the tickling of piano keys or the way drummer Keith Abrams trades in his pummeling but decidedly light-footed beats for a more plodding and pounding kind of thunder.

Then, just when you think you’ve got PAK figured out, comes the closing monster “Bienvenue a L’Hotel Plastique.”

From square one, it feels more sobering than its predecessors, a slowly unfolding post-rock exercise in the Don Caballero tradition that builds around a haunting, gradually sped-up guitar figure and some incredibly nimble and understated percussion.

Three and a half minutes into the ten-minute track, the figure gives way to a couple of PAK signatures — the rapid-fire succession of intermingled guitar and bass notes, the Ornette Coleman blaring of horns — but the thrust of it remains elsewhere, in that repeating guitar figure you can never seem to shake.

(About six and a half minutes in, when it seems like PAK has wandered onto other horizons, the figure gets inverted and truncated and pushed right back to the fore.)

It’s hard to think of one track, presented on its own merits, from a record this year that so encapsulates a band’s songwriting chops and its potential. For that alone, this Motel worth visiting for a night.

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