Friday, July 21, 2017
Project 86 -- Picket Fence Cartel
2009, for The Nicsperiment, was a disappointing year in music. The Nicsperiment hated all of the critical darlings of that year--Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors--and others' interest in those bands seems to have been quite ephemeral considering none of these acts have never been heard from again. When all your fans are hipsters, they won't be fans for long. Unfortunately, a lot of my favorite bands also put out disappointing music in 2009. With little interest in the new music of the year, and my own favorites disappointing me, my top nine albums list from that year is extremely lackluster. Outside of my top three (which I think are legitimately good), I had to insert filler like I've never had before or since. With youtube making a multitude of music so easily discoverable, I don't think that will ever happen to me, The Nicsperiment, again. However, even under those 2009 circumstances, Project 86's Picket Fence Cartel barely made my list.
On first listen to Picket Fence Cartel, I had a strange sensation: This does not sound like Project 86. Yes, the music is heavy. On a pure genre level, this is more in line with Project 86's past work than their previous album, Rival Factions. However, that album still sounded like Project 86. This does not sound like Project 86.
Listen after listen, I could not shake this feeling. Vocalist, Andrew Schwab, guitarist, Randy Torres, and bassist, Steven Dail, were all in the promotional photos, but outside of Schwab's vocals, a completely generic band could have played Picket Fence Cartel's music. Where were Steven Dail's thick, dominant basslines? Completely absent. Where were Randy Torres' increasingly frenetic guitar lines and his distinct background vocals? Completely absent. What about Jason Gerken's steroidal drumming? Completely absent. Instead, it's a mix of fairly generic hard rock with keyboard adding dark atmosphere. But what about Andrew Schwab's deep, introspective lyrics? Absent. Schwab has never hidden his faith (well, maybe a little during the Truthless Heroes phase), but instead of racking up J's per-minute, he's managed to use it as a lens in which he lyrically interprets life--causing most of the band's previous albums to be deeply spiritual experiences. Picket Fence Cartel's lyrics are straightforwardly religious, and on a pretty basic "I just got saved" level. This is a disappointment not only for non-Christian fans, but for longtime Christian fans (like myself) who want something deeper, and have grown to expect it from Project 86. Lame.
So what's the deal? How did Project 86 go from a career peak to a career valley over the course of just one album? Why doesn't Picket Fence Cartel even sound like Project 86? I've spent the last eight years pondering that question, and now I finally know the answer.
I recently came across an interview of Randy Torres by Stavesacre's own Mark Salomon, for Salomon's podcast, Never Was. Turns out, Torres did not play or sing a note of Picket Fence Cartel. He left the band months before Picket Fence Cartel's recording sessions even began. He only appeared in the promotional photos for the album at Schwab's request, to keep up appearances. Outside of those who were in the recording sessions, no one knows who actually played guitar on Picket Fence Cartel. My guess is co-producer, Jason Martin. Martin's main act, Starflyer 59, is a favorite of mine, but hard rock isn't exactly his style, and the fairly generic nature of the guitar-playing would make sense--Martin playing in a genre he isn't comfortable with would produce unremarkable work for that genre. Plus, on the standout moments, like the call-and-response guitar line of "The Black Brigade," the guitar sounds like 2009-era Starflyer 59, not Project 86.
Indeed, it's these definitely-not-Project 86 moments that are truly standout. I'm thinking specifically of the aforementioned guitar in "The Black Brigade," the echo-laden guitar of "Dark Angel Dragnet"'s verses, the punk rock fury of "Two Glass Eyes," and the old southern spiritual vibe that shows up early in the album's keyboards, and pays off in the final three tracks in background vocal form. This conjures images of the devil chasing Schwab along the Mississippi bank at midnight, full moon coming in through oak boughs. The sheer force of will in Schwab's vocals is also a plus, even if his lyrics aren't up to scratch. These combined factors make Picket Fence Cartel a listenable, slightly above average rock album...but they do nothing to make the album sound like Project 86. And where is Steven Dail? His bass is completely subdued, background noise. Maybe he was busy focusing on the guitars? Who knows. So much of this album is a mystery, and will remain so until those who played on it offer more information. As it stands, Picket Fence Cartel is my least favorite of Project 86's albums, if it's even a Project 86 album at all.
2009 Tooth & Nail
1. Destroyer 4:49
2. The Butcher 3:02
3. The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts 3:12
4. Dark Angel Dragnet 3:23
5. Cold and Calculated 3:38
6. Cement Shoes 3:56
7. A John Hancock with the Safety Off 3:16
8. Two Glass Eyes 3:28
9. Cyclonus 3:46
10. The Black Brigade 2:54
11. To Sand We Return 4:35