Avant-punks 90 Day Men have been hovering on the fringe of greatness for the past three or four years, creeping closer and closer to the rhinestone-encrusted door marked "big time" with each successive release. Critics have fawned over the band since their inception, but the listening public has yet to really adopt them as one of their own, due largely to the calculated insincerity of their delivery and the freakishly austere production values that have plagued/distinguished their records to date. If their past efforts were attempts to push people away, musically speaking, Panda Park
is the all-encompassing embrace designed to bring all the world rushing to 90 Day Men's door.
Produced by the irrepressible John Congelton (of the criminally underrated pAper chAse), Panda Park dives headlong into the shimmering end of the psychedelic spectrum, eschewing skronky art-punk in favor of enveloping, piano-centric tunes that stretch and mold themselves into visions of post-modern loveliness. Cascading ivory melts into a flurry of chiming guitars and gaunt backbeats on kaleidoscopic opener "Even Time Ghost Can't Stop Wagner", a stop-motion carriage ride through the heart of Loveland and Zombieville that occasionally doffs its cap to the fallen soldiers of the original post-punk movement. The Men have managed, with the help of sympathetic knob-twiddler Congelton, to shrug off the DC demons that used to shadow their every move, instead crafting a sound that's both richly ironic and defiantly human.
They may hail from the Windy City, but damned if they're going to let the ghosts of post-rock past haunt their memory and guide their every move with splintered hand. The Quaalude-driven "When Your Luck Runs Out" is just plain spooky, a spectral lullaby adorned with twilight piano flourishes and histrionic vocal turns from Brian Case and Rob Lowe, and the slow-burning saga "Night Birds" climaxes in an epic siege of melodramatic drum rolls and roiling, glacier-basted guitars. The band settles into a lugubrious jazz groove on "Too Late or Too Dead", but escapes the tedium by wailing like seafaring minstrels over skittering axe-work and ace-in-the-hole Lansangan's juicy keyboard fills. Time and time again throughout Panda Park, 90 Day Men prove themselves a rare breed -- a band capable of embracing tradition without becoming overburdened by it.
At just a smidge under thirty-five minutes, the album never wears out its welcome. Even the sweetest of pop wears thin after forty minutes, so when you're dealing with the brand of esoteric pop in which 90 Day Men traffic, it's important not to overextend your margins. If you do, you'll soon find your listeners taxed to the breaking point and searching for something less extemporaneous to fill the void.
Much like fellow wayward travelers TV On the Radio, 90 Day Men fight to imbibe their chosen form with a living, breathing soul. That's not always an easy feat to accomplish, especially when art-punk is your field of expertise, but in the end their wholehearted dedication to the spirit of originality lifts them above simple tags and genre classifications and into a stratosphere all their own.