Palberta billed themselves once as “New York’s weirdest.” As anyone who’s heard them beat the Bee Gees to death can testify, they’ve more than earned the title. This wildly experimental punk trio has earned critical comparisons to Captain Beefheart and Can; now, after a near-decade of unstructured punk cacophony, they are “focused on making music that people [can] not only sing along to but get stuck in their heads.” On Palberta5000, they accomplish this latter goal, but only through brute force. This band weakens a series of good-to-great songs by repeating a single lyric, without any variation whatsoever, for two to three minutes. A couple of these will definitely be more fun in the pit, but in the absence of pits and the abundance of lonely living rooms, Palberta5000 can be a slog.
This is a bummer, because there is otherwise a lot to laud on this album. The band’s playing, once sloppy on purpose, is now tight, intense, and all the more impressive because its members switch instruments between tracks. Nina Ryser murders the drums on “Fragile Place,” Anina Ivry-Block deftly lays her bass beneath “Big Bad Want,” and just about any time a guitar solo made me shiver, I checked the credits and found Lily Konigsberg on duty. All three women harmonize throughout the album in excellent vocal arrangements, at once studied and playful. There are some brief, tantalizing glimpses of what an instrument-free Palberta might sound like in “Corner Store” and “All Over My Face,” making me curious about the possibilities of a full-on a capella record.
Other bright spots include the jag of brief songs from “In Again” to “Eggs n’ Bac’”—classic, concise Palberta in damn-near perfect form. “Summer Sun” swoons and shimmers with giddy girl-group intensity, while “Red Antz” brings pretty Top 40 melodies to the band’s conventionally scuzzy sound. The album’s best track is the gorgeous love song “The Cow,” a resonant account of amorous friendship between two women who live in a grey city and yearn for greenery. They’d like, ideally, a cottage and a cow, but for now, flowers shooting up through the sidewalk on a morning-after walk home will have to do. The intimacy here is forgiving, prayerful: “I will be there with my hand on your chest/I feel your rumbling internal mess.”
At their very best on this record, Palberta sound like early, self-titled Sleater-Kinney, not ostensible pop influences Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. “Big Bad Want,” especially, is a song Corin and Carrie would be proud to have written. It’d be right at home on The Woods, and not just because of its Little Red Riding Hood motif—at least, until Palberta hit the half-minute mark, repeat the lyric, “Yeah, I can’t pretend what I want” at least fifty times, and kill the whole thing dead. They repeat this trick over and over again throughout the album, and the tedium builds from song to song, an exponential diminishment of returns.
In fairness, the end of “Big Bad Want” would probably sound great live, clicking along quickly, building and building as the crowd thrashes. But “Corner Store” and “Fragile Place,” which both consist largely of a single lyric, repeated, are mid-tempo, not engineered for head-banging. Each takes a glittering jewel of a hook, some line that would’ve been a high point in a more complex pop song, and dulls it.
Repetition is, of course, a mainstay of both punk and pop songwriting. But there is a science to it, a subtlety of structure that makes it move rather than annoy. In pianist David Bennett’s great video essay on the enduring appeal of one-note melodies in pop, he explains that artists like Taylor Swift and the Killers use extended repetition of a single musical note to build tension that dissolves (“In the clear yet? Good.”) or disturbs (“But she’s touching his chest”) in a deeply satisfying way once broken. Many stand-out punk songs use repetition to rile a crowd, usually in service of some eventual explosion, or with enough variation in timing and tone to create sonic peaks and valleys. In one track on Titus Andronicus’ Local Business, Patrick Stickles sings absolutely nothing but the words “I’m going insane” for two minutes straight, but his delivery is so erratic, so exuberant, that the song is equally thrilling whether you’re sitting in your bedroom or surfing across a crowd.
In the absence of any of these techniques, Palberta5000 winds up risking monotony. That’s not a word I ever thought I’d deploy to describe Palberta. There is a good album here. The band’s more characteristically brief songs are flawless, but there’s a lesson in this album for punk bands who may want to explore pop: It ain’t as easy as a great hook.
Buy: Rough Trade
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