Click to hear: “Marika”
Joungleur’s Soundtrack (1 of 5), the latest release from the enigmatic Portland musician Pal, is a confounding piece of work, a collection of six alternately astonishing and maddening compositions, only four of which are listed on the album.
My home CD player initially recognized eight tracks, the second of which was a few seconds of silence (tracking error, most likely), the fourth a short xylophone line with some percussive guitar strums. The CD-R eventually confused, and then seemingly offended, my CD player, which began to lose its tracking ability on the third listen, then refused to recognize the disc at all.
That’s a shame, because Pal should be recognized. (Which is why I importedJoungleur’s into my computer and burned my own copy, which plays fine. And why enlightened listeners should buy enough Pal product to allow him to release reliable recordings – which is, unfortunately, unlikely to happen this decade.)
While it would be overstatement to say there’s genius at work here, this is highly intelligent music. Pal’s psychedelic folk-rock is exceptionally well-crafted – especially considering it sounds like a home recording – with layers of vocals and instrumentation painstakingly woven together to create an experience that rewards both casual and close listening.
The first track, “Marika,” evokes the damaged elegance of Big Star’s Third (Sister Lovers), then dissolves into a tripped-out segue worthy of Barrett-era Floyd before returning to the original pop structure and fading with an extended, stately outro. Ghostly vocals float above a sonic landscape grounded by guitars and spiked with xylophone and piano bits. It’s a remarkably well-composed seven minutes of psych-pop bliss.
By contrast, the next track, “Lies,” is a disappointment. Pal employs a heavily distorted guitar to deliver a leaden melody which, while it reflects the angry subject matter, soon grows tedious to hear. The chorus, built on the same melody, offers no relief.
But then comes “Rumoured” – the spelling reflects Pal’s British-inflected vocal style – a song that breezes in on some lovely acoustic guitar and boasts a beautiful bridge to a edgier, heavier chorus that works. Like “Marika,” “Rumoured” dissolves into and out of a dreamy middle passage full of ethereal vocals, plinking percussion and sonic oddities that keep the ear entertained.
The last track listed, “Edge of This Cliff,” will either send the listener running for the edge of the nearest precipice or diving for the “stop” button. After a deceptively straightforward intro of strummed guitar and wistful, folky vocals, things speed up, layers accrue, and Pal starts rushing through a circular stanza – “you keep me hanging on the edge of this cliff as I’m walking on the edge of this cliff I am looking for a way to get myself away and from the edge of this cliff….” – repeated over and over (and over and over) again, further burdened by overdubs of the song’s title intoned in a nervy, insistent voice. It’s indulgent and torturous and doesn’t relent until the song breaks the 14-minute mark and, mercifully, ends.
But again, this is not the end of the album, and anyone who’s stuck it out through the last track listed (or skipped ahead to “track seven”) will be rewarded with a gem of a tune. Why Pal kept this song anonymous and hidden is a real mystery, because it’s the catchiest number on Joungleur’s, a mid-tempo strummer with graceful keyboard, a drum track, and Pal’s most accessible vocals and lyrics.
The last track – a second bonus track? – causes more head-scratching. It sounds like a collaboration between Eggbot and Satellite Lot, which is a good thing, but this three-minute, mostly instrumental stretch of music doesn’t reach full volume until it’s two-thirds of the way through, and never really deviates from its crazy little melody. It’s an odd, but intriguing, coda to an odd, intriguing CD.
Pal’s been around Portland’s music scene for quite some time, but has rarely played in public since Free Street Taverna changed ownership a few years ago (he used to cook there). His discography lists recordings going back to 1998 – like 2003’s Music to Vacuum By and Ultimate Being (Or the Next Best Thing), from last year – as well as a couple still to come, including Joungleur’s Soundtrack (2 of 5), due next year.
There’s enough great material on the first of this five-part “soundtrack” to warrant anticipation for the next and stir curiosity about Pal’s back catalogue. If there was ever justification for a “Best Of…” release, this is it.
— Chris Busby
Pal has no Web site, but can be reached at email@example.com.