Pedro The Lion – Achilles Heel

Sing When You’re Winning

It’s no accident that so many of our favorite musical artist’s live desperate existences built around pain. They wear the blues on their sleeves, or in the case of a singer like Billie Holiday, a highball glass and a hypodermic needle. It’s not that music fans want to see their beloved artists suffer. It’s just that the torment is often what makes a song great. Because there’s nothing more beautiful than carefully distilled pain wrung out by a musician that knows what they’re doing. But while money and fame aren’t cure-all prescriptions for happiness, they go a long way towards sweeping away despair. Perhaps this is why so many of our darling artists fall off after finding success. It’s not easy to convince an audience that life is suffering when you have homes on five continents and your children have their own personal assistants. Others lose their despondent edge when they find lasting love, clean up a chemical dependency, or discover the services of a good therapist. This is what makes the sophomore slump so difficult to overcome, and often why we don’t want to see our favorite indie bands break through to the pop charts. It is the truly great songwriter (John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Thom Yorke come to mind) that incorporate any circumstance or success into continued quality material.

David Bazan, the driving force behind Pedro the Lion, hasn’t reached Jay-Z’s level of material success, and even fans of Pedro the Lion’s work might not recognize Bazan’s name outside of the context of his band. But the group saw moderate victory with its last album, 2002′s Control. Somehow a band that existed in a foundation of Christian indie rock found an audience with songs that dredge the banks of the river misery. Would the achievement destroy the very fabric that made Pedro the Lion great: poignant, somber songs about Bazan’s moral struggle with faith, marital fidelity, and the reason to keep going in this life? The answer may be in the album’s title, Achilles Heel. Perhaps Bazan recognized what a danger success was to his continued ability to appeal to fans. It sounds as though he used this dilemma to fuel material for the new record, and in pointing out the potential weakness, he overcame it.

Achilles Heel is filled with a few deviations from Pedro the Lion’s previous style. For example, long-term fans will wonder at the higher falsetto with which Bazan sings, and speculate if he is attempting to emulate the success that groups like Coldplay have found recently. But for the most part, Pedro the Lion continue to mine the rich vein of material they’ve been concentrating on from the beginning. Much of Achilles Heel focuses on Bazan’s attempt to hold his relationships together no matter the cost. His relationship with God, his wife and himself all bend under the strain, but he’ll break his bones holding them together. Ultimately, Bazan continues to sound more like a distillation of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and The Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz than the latest flavor of pop star.

Recorded in his home studio near Seattle, Achilles Heel enlists previous collaborator TW Walsh, along with fellow Jade Tree label mates James McAlister and Ester Drang. The album jumps off with "Bands With Managers", a catchy, ironic song reminiscent of a slowed down Grandaddy ditty that seems inspired by a run-in Bazan had with an arrogant lead singer or actual manager. Bazan uses the context to separate himself from other groups that are so obviously "going places", using the occasion to posture that his relationship with longtime contributor T. William Walsh is far more important than getting to open for U2 on their next stadium tour. Lyrics like "But I trust T. William Walsh and I’m not afraid to die" are a testament to friendship and loyalty that Bazan takes more seriously than the trajectory of his career.

Unfortunately, Bazan cannot apply this same level of fidelity to the relationship he maintains with his wife. In the past Bazan has spent much lyrical time pondering his tendency towards adultery and his ability to be faithful. Achilles Heel features songs like "I Do", presenting Bazan’s thoughts as his wife gives birth to their child. As the miraculous labor comes to pass, Bazan wonders which he would take back first: the child he and his wife have, or the ring he gave her. The choice, he sings, is obvious, reflected in both the song’s title and refrain.

Even in metaphor, Bazan can’t help but to tumble through his indecision about relationships. "Arizona" tells the story of the title state’s traitorous romantic relationship with California, much to the chagrin of New Mexico. Strange geographic personification aside, the catchy tune is a perfect allegory for the way Bazan clearly sees every facet of the world.

The cycle, at least on this album, is completed with the last song, "The Poison". Here is Bazan drinking his misery away and dealing with the aftermath of his actions. Annihilating his innards just seems to make previous mistakes more obvious. At the end of the song he reveals his father’s relationship with women, swearing he would never have a flame, and would instead sit there and watch over and over as true love stumbled away. The last lines of the song, and the album, are: "My old man always swore that hell would have no flame/ Just a front row seat/ To watch your true love pack her things and drive away." This is Bazan explaining what love is: something you let go of. Something one watches walk away.

If these dysfunctional musings on relationships are indicative of how Bazan relates to others, "The Fleecing" reveals much of how Bazan feels about himself. The music is adequate, but nothing here is going to distract the listener from lyrical beauty that Bazan injects into each stanza. "Deep green hills whose shoulders fade/ Into the gray tall wet grass/ Whose flesh makes fools of grazing sheep/ Whose fleecing makes a fool of me" read as stand alone poetry. But the true heart of "The Fleecing" comes towards the end, when Bazan admits that he "I can’t say it like I sing it/ And I can’t sing it like I think it/ And I can’t think it like I feel it/ And I don’t feel a thing/ Oh no — I don’t feel a thing." In his seeming loneliness, Bazan reveals every human’s terror that they can never truly communicate what is in their heart: that no form of expression is adequate. If this is the case then maybe it doesn’t matter how happy you are, so long as you’re misunderstood.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Sadcore indie singer-songwriter Pedro the Lion, also known as David Bazan, shifts from the somber gray tones of his previous outings to full-bodied pop. “Achilles’ Heel” is filled with delicious melodies, cool buzzy guitar riffs and great tales.

      This bigger, sweeter approach gives Bazan’s gorgeous voice a sunny timbre that is utterly delightful. In the yearning “A Simple Plan,” he imagines a utopia where everyone gets a fair shot. When Bazan asks, “Why not?” it’s a bittersweet reality check that doesn’t nix the power of his delicate prayer.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Born-again indie-rocker David Bazan (the key songwriter and only permanent member of Pedro the Lion) has crafted yet another morose album of despondent songs. Bazan, who is a devout Christian, doesn’t preach a clean lifestyle or dedicate his music to his Savior: he writes songs that question and challenge his faith. He mentions both the Devil and the Lord on Achilles Heel, but there’s also plenty about drinking and carrying on.

Elliott Smith wrote some sad songs; so have Lou Barlow and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk. But Bazan takes despair a step farther with lyrics that deal in death, decay, and hopelessness. His voice comes out as a slow moan aching with misery. In "Transcontinental," a paralyzed man has his legs amputated. In the exquisite "I Do," a woman contemplates how her marriage has caused her to bury her dreams and live vicariously through her son. "Foregone Conclusions," the only thing close to an upbeat tune here, is nonetheless brought down by the sad undercurrent in Bazan’s voice that seems bred in his very bones. What saves Pedro the Lion from being merely another outlet for emo-boy angst is Bazan’s talent as a composer, and lyrics that cut deeper than simply bemoaning the loss of some girl with bangs and horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Despite the inescapable sadness of Achilles Heel, it’s a lovely release.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

David Bazan’s last outing as Pedro The Lion, ‘Control’, was a conceptually-rich and emotionally-harrowing masterpiece, chronicling one man’s life, true love, betrayal and eventual death. ‘Achilles’ Heel’ finds him with a slightly sunnier outlook, although those same themes remain intact, all the time underpinned by Bazan’s persistent questioning of his own Christianity. ‘Keep Swinging’ is an upbeat number that recalls the work of the recently-reformed Sebadoh, whilst acoustic closer ‘The Poison’ – lyrical documentation of an individual’s decent into alcoholism notwithstanding – ensures that as ‘Achilles’ Heel’ fades to silence you’re more likely to be grinning than looking for something to open a vein with. Bazan will never sound truly happy on record, but here he’s as content as anyone could have hoped for, and all the healthier for it.

 

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Of all the bands I’ve liked at one point, I don’t think I’ve received quite as much flack for any as much as I have Pedro the Lion. I’ve never quite ‘gotten’ the abhorrence some have felt for the band, as vocalist and lyricist David Bazan seems to teeter just far enough between both gratingly annoying and remarkably above par to keep himself off the radar. Regardless, people just hear the term "Christian Rock" and they duck and cover. The term conjures up images of aging men relating to "real teens" at alternative churches, possibly singing verses about ‘natural’ birth control. This grouping has always seemed to do more harm than good for rock item Pedro the Lion, putting off listeners before they have even bothered to listen.

Pedro the Lion is the moniker donned by Seattle native David Bazan, who has steadily used it to put out albums since the arrival of It’s Hard to Find a Friend in 1998. Backed by Casey Foubert (who supplies bass, percussion and keyboards), the outfit has released their fifth album, entitled Achilles Heel, this month.

I should clear this up right off the bat. Yes, Bazan is Christian. No, he does not use his music as a vehicle to preach Christian ideals to his listeners. Instead, Bazan analyzes different issues and uses situations to ponder, question, challenge, and affirm his basic faith, all which he manages gracefully, and never in an alienating manner. His wavering drawl, sparse arrangements and mellow rock only serve to his purpose. Having been a fan of the group’s previous efforts, I was eager to hear Achilles Heel.

This time around, James McAlister supplies the keyboards and T.W Walsh the bass. The first track off the album, "Bands with Managers" starts off the album smoothly and find’s Bazan’s voice accelerating to reach beautiful highs and decelerating back to his trademark drone. The explosive "Foregone Conclusions" is surprisingly charismatic. "The Fleecing" is lulling and dreamy. Bazan’s vocals are longing and match perfectly to the brand of music that is supplied. "Keep Swinging" sets itself apart from the rest of the songs through it’s jerky rhythms and vocals that escalate to various heights, but the album returns to it’s previous course afterward. Somber and careening, "A Simple Plan" is a standout track. The wavering verses and pacing drums of "Transcontinental" make the song a welcome turn. Though the band has noticeably expanded their sound, some of the less distinguishable tracks feel like retreads of previous ones. The band picks up the pace here and then slows down there, and then repeats the process a couple more times, and despite this, none of the material is aversive enough for it to be considered exceedingly detrimental to the overall quality of the album.

Achilles Heel will be a relief to fans who were becoming wary of Bazan’s concept albums and in need of a broader range of topics as well as a more explorative sound. Bazan is a talented and warming songwriter, but still has yet to reach his fullest potential. Achilles Heel is not a disappointment, but a satisfying listen- at least until something better comes along.

Pedro the Lion : Interview

David Bazan is one of rock music’s thinkers. A pessimist but also a humanitarian, a Christian but one assuaged with as many doubts as beliefs, his band Pedro the Lion’s scuffed-up form of lo-fi rock has attracted a widening and similarly questioning audience who, like Bazan, also see in life no easy solutions.

Pedro the Lion formed in Seattle and recorded their debut EP, ‘Whole’, for the Touch and Go label in 1997. Later that year the original five-piece line-up of the group broke up, but Bazan decided to keep their name as a vehicle for his own solo songwriting efforts, taking on and enlisting other members into the band on a temporary basis as studio and live work demanded. Pedro the Lion’s first album, ‘It’s Hard to Find a Friend’, was released on Made in Mexico in 1998. In 1999 Bazan signed to the Delaware-based label, Jade Tree, with whom he has been ever since. Pedro the Lion have gone on to release another three albums, ‘Winners Never Quit’ (2000), ‘Control’ (2002) and in April of this year their latest offering ‘Achilles Heel’.

‘Achilles Heel’ was recorded in Bazan’s own home studio, and, as well as Bazan, also features the talents of two other musicians, James McAlister, who also plays drums with Pedro the Lion’s Jade Tree label mates Ester Drang , and Bazan’s long-term cohort, TW (Tim) Walsh, who between ‘Control’ and this album has joined the band as its second full-time member.

While ‘Winners Never Quit’, which told of two brothers ‘
self-destruction through over-ambition, and ‘Control’, which was about the murderous conclusion to a failed marriage, were both concept albums, ‘Achilles Heel’ is more in line with ‘It’s Hard to Find a Friend’ in that is topical in tone.

Bazan has gained a reputation, especially after the ultra-dark ‘Control’, for being bleak. ‘Achilles Heel’, which balances his world-worn vocals against dirging guitars and scuzzed-out keyboards, is in many ways in a similar vein. ‘Bands Without Managers’ tells of 15 passenger bus crashes. The female characters in ‘I Do’ and in ‘Discretion’ are both casualties of the sex wars. A Marxist father in ‘A Simple Plan’ meanwhile is initially thankful when his breadwinner function is relieved by the dawn of communism, but then becomes suicidal. In other ways though ‘Achilles Heel’ also offers more hope and humour than Bazan’s other albums. Talking in early April on the phone from Athens, Georgia in the midst of a joint pre-release tour with Death Can for Cutie, David Bazan spoke to Pennyblackmusic about some of the contrasts in ‘Achilles Heel’

PB : Why did you decide to call your new album ‘Achilles Heel’ ?

DB : We had several names for the album on the table, and of all the ones we had to choose from I thought that that was the best one. So did TW who helped out with a lot of the decisions. We liked the way it looked on paper. We liked the way it sounded. It has an interesting shape and ring to it, and indicates a vulnerability that we thought tied in with the whole tone of the record. Many of the characters on the record are dealing with crisis situations in their lives, and often suddenly discovering what their vulnerable spots are.

PB : You have developed a reputation, especially after the last album ‘Control’ for being very bleak. How do you see ‘Achilles Heel’ in comparision to that record ? Do you see it as being less or more bleak ?

DB : I would say that it is less bleak. The main difference in ‘Achilles Heel’ is that it is more multi-faceted than ‘Control’ was. ‘Control’ was very, very monochrome. It was an unrelentingtly dark album, whereas ‘Achilles Heel’ I think has an element of that in it, but also elements of humour and of self-deprecation. I feel that ‘Achilles Heel’ does not take itself as seriously as ‘Control’ did. For that reason alone, it is less bleak. It is not nearly as ominous and overbearing.

PB : One gets the impression from listening to ‘Achilles Heel’ that you had a lot of fun recording it. Was that the case ?

DB : Yeah, definitely. There were a couple of times when we were in the studio recording the album , and I would become obsessive over a guitar sound or something like that, and Tim would say “If you spend three days on this guitar sound, that’s the way the record is going to sound. People are going to say they must have really worked hard on making the sound right.
What we want is people to hear us having fun.” We really tried to avoid becoming obsessive about stuff, which is rarely enjoyable, and to put an emphasis instead on having a good time instead.

PB : It seems to be a much more fluid record than ‘Control’. As you were trying to avoid worrying less about the smaller details, was it recorded then over a much shorter time period ?

DB : We in fact probably spent about the same amount of time. We just spent more time doing more organic activities like playing music together and figuring out songs, and less doing things like sitting in front of the speakers trying to figure out guitar sounds.

The album was also recorded piece meal and over a couple of months. We took breaks for Christmas, and also for other things and occasions. It took us quite a long time to record.

PB : You all played the guitars, the synthesisers and the drums. Did you have clearly defined roles on the album before you began or did you record it on a much more casual basis with people taking on roles as it progressed ?

DB : It was recorded on a much more casual basis. When we began recording we were still trying to figure out what the angle of the group was going to be. The line-up of the band had been until then something of a revolving door, but Tim had come on and we had decided he was going to be a permanent fixture, so we were trying to figure out “Is he going to be the bass player ? Is he going to be the drummer ? Or what ?” We can all play different things, and at the beginning there was quite a lot of friction about that. One day I would come in and say “Let’s do it like this’”, but then the next day Tim would say “Let’s do it like this instead” so we finally came to the decision to do just what was best for each song in each case. It worked out better in the end.

PB : The album was recorded in your own studio. Where is that ?

DB : It’s about an hour and a half out of Seattle and is on the Kydsnapp Peninsular at the edge of Washington State. If you’re right handed it’s kind of on the thumb of it. I live about a hundred and fifty feet from the studio. It’s on the same land where I live.There are always pluses and minuses to recording in your own studio,but I think for our sensibilities the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses. The vibe and the comfortability of the recording session is so much more enhanced. We like it better that way for sure.

PB : You’ve recorded with Tim before . He has been with you quite a while now, but you have also taken on another new recruit, James McAlister, for this album Who is he ?

DB : He’s the drummer in Ester Drang, who are friends of ours. I met him a couple of years ago and he is a really excellent drummer and percussionist and also plays keyboards well. We decided it would be good to have another guy around, so we could use someone to play on on the tracks live, and to have these three guys making music together and mutli-tracking stuff. He was a really good option for us because we like him as a person, and also because he is very enthusiastic and has plenty of good ideas. He’s not going to be in the band regularly because he’s got his own band. For that session though we really enjoyed having him around.

PB : Your last two albums, ‘Winners Never Quit’ and ‘Control’, were concept-based, but this one goes back to the style of your first album, ‘It’s Hard’s to Find a Friend’, in that all the songs are topical. Did you make a conscious decision to go down that course even before you started writing the songs?

DB : Yes, I definitely did. I had come round after ‘Control’ to the idea of the creative process being more about discovery than it is trying to communicate some kind of preordained idea. I was also trying to rely on my subconscious more. Tim was saying that he had had read that Neil Young always tries to write in the subconscious. If he starts thinking too over consciously about a song he will just leave it, and come back later to it, so I tried approaching it more that way. Each song, therefore, stands on its own more.

I also wanted to go back to the vibe of ’It’s Hard to Find a Friend’, especially after ‘Control’ which was more of a hard rock record. I don’t really regret having made it, but in the process I realised that that’s not really what I want to spend the rest of my time doing.

PB : The first track on ‘Achilles Heel’ is ‘Bands With Managers’. At one level it seems to be fairly condemning attack on corporate rock, but you also at the end of the song describe a van crash which involves 15 passengers. Where did you get the idea about the crash from ?

DB : In the US the main kind of vans are referred to as 15 passengers. There were all these articles coming out about how the centre of balance on many of them was too high, so they would keep rolling over, and there was talk of maybe recalling some of them.

We usually use those kind of vans when the band is touring,At night especially when I had done with my driving shift, I would usually go to lay down in the back to sleep. Sometimes that became really hard. You’re scared because if the guy driving is changing lanes and you hear him hit the bumps on the road you picture yourself crashing and you just end up anxious, so so that I could sleep I started doing this thing where at first I would ask myself what I was worried about, what was the worst thing that could happen, and that was that I would die . I , therefore, started singing this thing to myself when I wanted to go to sleep about whoever it was that was driving, “ I trust, TW Walsh, and I am not afraid to die” or whoever as a mantra. I would just say that to myself and then usually I would always be able to go to sleep after that, and that was just something that would help me, and so I actually ended up putting that very same line into the song.

PB :There is a subtext of sexism to some of the songs. The wife in ‘I Do’ is reduced to a function, while on ‘Discretion’ it made quite clear that the wife “sleeps in her husband’s bed”. Where did you take the inspiration for that from ?

DB : Many of the men in my life, such as my grandfathers and uncles, have been from the old school and they definitely influenced the album . The album references that, and makes a comment on it. Some of the male characters on the record are struggling with manhood and what that means, particulary now. What masculinity is ? I think a lot of fear and insecurity
comes out of that, and that when someone is fearful or insecure they tend to lash out at other people. Other references on the album though I think are really funny, There are references to when people make statements like “Oh, the Mum wears the pants in that family”. Those are euphenisms that I find really comical.

PB : On ‘A Simple Plan’ the father’s role of breadwinner is relieved by the dawn of communism, but at the the end of the song, despite him having got what he wants, it ends with him alone in the bedroom with his shotgun and about to kill himself. Is the point of that song that there is a danger in getting what you want ?

DB : Yes, definitely. I am pretty liberal politically,but nevertheless still wanted to ask the question if there was some sort of revolution and you got everything you wanted if that would effect you negatively. If you’re busy fighting for something you can sometimes be so distracted that you forgot your other problems or your depression or whatever. I was contemplating communism a little as well. I rely a lot on the fact that I have to find my own means of providing and earning money, and was wondering what the effects would be psychologically if suddenly you didn’t have to. It ’s a pretty cliched argument in some ways, but it was an angle I still wanted to explore

PB : Do you see your songs as modern day allegories and parables ?

DB : No, I used to but I don’t anymore. I feel that with allegories and parables there’s a knowing sort of aloofness to them where the writer or the storyteller is making this observation, sometimes of real brilliance, and is sort of above and beyond what is going on in the story. I feel uncomfortable about doing that myself. In my songwriting I am usually trying to make sense of the things I am having to face. I don’t particulary want to step outside or beyond that.

PB : You’re from a Christian background and you describe yourself as a Christian, yet you seem to take issue with a lot of Christian tradition and absolutism. Do you think that is a fair assessment ?

DB : I think so. There are things I am not sure about, but I would, however, still describe myself as a Christian I do , however,take issue with aboslutism and traditionalism. That’s absolutely true.

PB : Your music, unlike a lot of other Christian rock music has proved very appealing to many non-Christians. Do you think that a lot of non-Christians find your music appealing because you’re so open about your doubts ?

DB : It’s hard to know on a wide scale exactly who is listening , but I have run into people who don’t believe in the same way that do, but who still find our music appealing.If someone makes themselves vulnerable and shows their doubts about something I think it is appealing to other people because they are dealing with questions that we are all concerned with, not necessarily about God, because some people could’t care less, but about human interaction and purpose in our lives. If somebody is willing to have an open-ended dialogue about that I know that’s compelling to me when I listen to music no matter what stripes they’re wearing and what creed they are coming from. I enjoy being involved in that sort of cultural dialogue.

PB : The group’s been playing some pre-release dates with Death Cab for Cutie. You’re actually in Athens in Georgia tonight. How’s that tour been going ?

DB : It’s been great. I have known those guys for about seven years, and they’re really good friends and their band is extremely successful. We’re getting to play to maybe twice as big an audience as we would normally and all those people have been really receptive to what we’re doing. For us it’s been going very well friend-wise, audience-wise, and also the shows have been great. People have been really attentive and supportive.

PB : What other plans do you have for the future once you have done this tour and once you have got the album out ?

DB : We’re going to do 40 days in the United States starting June 1st and then we’re going to come over and play in Europe and the UK. The last time we did the UK at the end of the trip, so, if we do it the same way, that will be the end of August.

PB : Thank you very much.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Pedro the Lion is a musical identity created to vent the creative talents of David Bazan, who has teamed up with various musicians during Pedro’s existence to create a unique persona for the band, and to express an often-controversial point of view. Pedro’s music reflects Bazan’s unashamed Christianity, but allows him to question almost everything that he believes. Listening to a Pedro the Lion record is like looking through a window into the complex inner workings of Bazan’s mind – each song has a purpose and strong sense of direction aimed at achieving a deeper understanding of a particular topic. Indeed Pedro’s last two albums were essentially concept albums – Control, released on Jade Tree Records in 2002, was a thematic exploration of a man’s struggle with life.

Achilles Heel, the new album from Pedro the Lion, offers more varied content while maintaining a sense of unity. Bands With Managers opens the album in a slow drone, with Bazan’s voice calling out above the haunting guitar progression. Forgone Conclusions steps up the tempo immediately, while maintaining a laid back feel and the strong melody evident in both Bazan’s guitar playing and vocals throughout the album. The Fleecing continues with an upbeat pulse, with the lyrics clearly expressing Bazan’s determination to maintain an open and questioning mind – "I could buy you a drink/ I could tell you all about it/ I could tell you why I doubt it and why I still believe".

Discretion pulls back the tempo of the album for a while, with the musical change reflecting a shift to darker lyrical content, as Bazan tells a haunting tale of a farmer sleeping soundly while the man who has killed his son is right outside considering his next move. The flowing keyboard progression in Arizona fades gradually into the slightly funky opening of Keep Swinging, which addresses the consequences of a big night out in Bazan’s own laconic, understated style. The same understated vocal style is carried through in Transcontinental as Bazan relates of the story of a man caught under a train struggling with thoughts of tales of bravery as he lies there dying.

I Do is laden with musical and vocal hooks, with an intricate guitar melody underlying the simple yet captivating repetition of "I Do" in the chorus. A Simple Plan delves into the life of a man struggling to come to terms with the realisation of a dream that he has strived for all his life. Living in the classless society created under communism, he finds that he has lost his purpose to live – "to think of my family no longer compels me/ with all things in common they’ll manage without me". Start Without Me packs a bit more punch musically, building up to a dynamic peak before fading out and sliding effortlessly into The Poison, which is a slow, listless track bringing the album to a final conclusion with one last account of the personal struggle that takes place in millions of lives each day.

Achilles Heel is a strong musical document, from start to finish offering both musical and topical stimulation. While at many times a rather dark affair, the album leaves the listener with a distinct feeling of hope to carry out into the world, and maintains the indie rock style that fans of Pedro the Lion have come to expect. Overall, Achilles Heel is Pedro’s finest achievement to date.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Forget about whether or not David Bazan is a Christian. The important thing you need to know about Achilles Heel is that it’s not a concept album, and we should all offer thanks to God in heaven for that fact. Despite the strength and success of the band’s previous full-length releases (2000′s Winners Never Quit and 2002′s Control), Bazan has wisely chosen to move away from the narrative song-cycle format he explored with those records. On Achilles Heel, he instead allows each song to stand on its own. Ironically, the result is his most thematically coherent album to date.

Historically much of Pedro the Lion’s lyrical content has focused on the darker side of human nature, particularly the areas of religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Nothing has really changed here as far as that goes. In short, depravity abounds in these songs; I counted at least five shattered relationships, two deaths, two imminent suicides, one drunken bed-shitting and a pushy evangelist who ignores even the Holy Spirit’s plea to "shut the fuck up" in "Foregone Conclusions". However, unlike Pedro’s previous albums, Achilles Heel does not sink beneath the weight of its own moral statements. Bazan has always had a knack for letting his characters’ own words implicate them, without the need for overt narrative didacticism, and it’s nice to see him embrace that gift here. The stunning "I Do" contains what is likely the best couplet of the year: "Now that my blushing bride has done what she was born to do / it’s time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through."

Musically, Achilles Heel sounds more like Control than it does any other previous Pedro the Lion album. The guitars are sometimes fuzzy and dense, and at other times sparse and melodic. Subtle synthesizer lines, smooth vocals and occasional acoustic guitars help to provide the understated texture we’ve come to expect from Pedro recordings. In "Keep Swinging", the band briefly ventures into Rubber Soul-era Beatles territory (with interesting results), but the majority of the arrangements are quite simple — the perfect treatment for tight, well-constructed pop songs.

Write good songs. Record them simply. Don’t preach. There’s a concept that works.

Pedro the Lion Covers Radiohead, Cat Power on Tour EP; Offers Daily MP3 Downloads from Official Website Lion, cat seemingly at odds, but look funny together on posters

Jeremy C. Baron reports:
Pedro the Lion, who, following the death of Creed, may now claim the title of Christian Rock’s Biggest Band (except Stryper), know how to swing them some bonus tour cash, and are officially ready to strike the fear of God into your wallet on their latest U.S. jaunt. The merch? A brand new tour-only EP containing live in-studio recordings of three previously released tracks, and three covers of songs by Radiohead, Cat Power, and Randy Newman. Though these things always seem to show up somewhere after the fact, you can be reasonably sure that this one’s going to sell out. Unless it doesn’t. Tracklist:

01 Transcontinental (live in-studio recording)
02 I Am Always The One Who Calls (live in-studio recording)
03 Slow and Steady Wins The Race (live in-studio recording)
04 Political Science (Randy Newman)
05 Metal Heart (Cat Power)
06 Let Down (Radiohead)

And don’t you love it when you get a little something extra? Oh wait, I’m sorry, that’s a gum commercial. But! There’s more to this touring story we’re in the middle of telling. You see, for every one of Pedro’s many tour dates, the band will post a live MP3 to their website for download. The catch, however, is that– much like Wilco did with their More Like the Moon EP– a purchase of Pedro’s newly released Achilles Heel LP is required to download the tracks. And they’ve got the technology to make it happen.

The MP3s will showcase a variety of material, including live tracks, soundchecks, and in-store performances. One track will be posted for each of Pedro’s gigs at 2 p.m. Central time, and will available for download for a period of just 24 hours. According to Pedro manager Bob Andrews, the limit is in place partly to encourage more site traffic, and to prevent mass bandwidth use. The postings will take place on a one week delay, with the first MP3 posted this Wednesday, and the last available a week after the tour ends. The band sends Andrews a burned CD of recordings every few days, and he chooses which MP3s will ultimately make it onto the site.

The idea for the giveaway came up during the Achilles recording sessions. Andrews explains: "Back when David [Bazan] and T.W. [Walsh] were recording and mixing the album they would post final mixes on our web server as soon as they were done with each song. Then I could download them right away to check them out. So every night I had another new song. It was exciting to get a new song everyday. So we thought it might be cool to do something that might give fans a similar experience– getting something new everyday, stuff that everyone else does not have. It also seems like a good way for people who don’t live in towns where the band is playing to be able to check out the live stuff."

Pedro the Lion started their tour (along with John Vanderslice) back in May 28th, and are on the road until July 10th. Ten of the dates will be filmed for an upcoming 2005 tour DVD. And since you undoubtedly want to check it out, we’ll post the dates again. And we’ll do it just like this:

06-11 Dallas, TX – Trees
06-12 Little Rock, AR – Vino’s
06-13 Nashville, TN – Exit / In
06-14 Atlanta, GA – Echo Lounge
06-15 Columbia, SC – New Brookland Tavern
06-16 Charlottesville, VA – Star Hill Music Hall
06-17 Washington, DC – Black Cat
06-18 Lancaster, PA – The Chameleon
06-19 Philadelphia, PA – First Unitarian Church
06-20 Brooklyn, NY – North Six
06-21 New York, NY – Knitting Factory
06-22 Cambridge, MA – Middle East Club
06-24 Toronto, Ontario – Horseshoe Tavern
06-25 Buffalo, NY – Mohawk Place
06-26 Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
06-27 Detroit, MI – Magic Stick
06-28 Chicago, IL – Abbey Pub
06-29 Chicago, IL – Abbey Pub
06-30 Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
07-01 Milwaukee, WI – Wehr Hall
07-02 Iowa City, IA – Gabe’s Oasis
07-03 Bushnell, IL – Cornerstone Festival
07-05 Omaha, NE – Sokol Underground
07-06 Denver, CO – Bluebird Theater
07-07 Salt Lake City, UT – In the Venue
07-08 Boise, ID – Big Easy
07-09 Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
07-10 Seattle, WA – Showbox

PEDRO THE LION DROPS SOME EXCLUSIVE LIVE TRACKS

Beginning today the considerate folks in PEDRO THE LION, still celebrating the release of Achilles’ Heel (JT1095), will be posting a new live MP3 everyday from the Summer tour; a collection of new songs, old songs, sound checks, record store and radio station performances. Each MP3 will be posted at 2pm (CT) and will be available for 24 hours only. Think of it as a audio documentary of the tour…and all you need is the username and password found in the liner notes your copy of the Achilles’ Heel CD and LP.


Please consult the Pedro the Lion for current dates.

Pedro the Lion Merely Meows

Forgetting Creed for a moment (or forever), most Christian musicians have a difficult time crossing over to mainstream audiences. Perhaps that’s why Pedro the Lion’s latest release, "Achilles’ Heel" on Jade Tree Records, departs from the band’s previous, closer to God (though definitely not in the Nine Inch Nails fashion) efforts.

David Bazan, the one-man brain behind Pedro the Lion, says in the press release that the sudden absence of religious themes is because he wanted to "un-concept things a bit." He wasn’t kidding. But maybe concept is a good thing.

It turns out that "un-concepting" means writing songs about the bleak, depressing world of characters constantly in conflict with society. Pedro the Lion epitomizes the idea that indie-emo rockers are just whiny, sad men. But the even sadder thing is that this is probably the happiest Bazan has been when compared to his previous releases.

The simplistic music succumbs to the lyrics – which are often drawn-out and subtly belted out. But the lyrics, as impressively heartfelt as they are, search for a true cohesiveness. The songs jump from one issue to another like fleas that can’t decide which animal to bite first.

"Bands with Managers," the opening track, pokes fun at, obviously, "bands with managers" and "bands with messy hair and smooth white faces." It wouldn’t be surprising to find "Arizona," a song that personifies relationships with states like New Mexico and California, on the next season of "The O.C."

Scattered among the music-industry observations, relationship troubles and one God reference ("Foregone Conclusions") lies some patriarchy, the album’s only apparent theme. "I Do" describes a man who regretfully marries his "blushing bride" after she performs her functional birth-bearing duties. This patriarchy carries over to "A Simple Plan," about a man struggling to bring money home to support his wife and kids. Whether the "sexist subtext" is meant to be sarcastic is unclear, but, judging from Bazan’s previous cynical lyrics, let’s be optimistic and hope it’s a criticism of society rather than blaming it all on Eve.

Bazan is a master at storytelling, as proven with "Control" and "Winners Never Quit," two previous releases. But where those albums are novels, "Achilles’ Heel" is more like a collection of short stories – which can peak a small interest alone, but do almost nothing as a whole. Or perhaps, as Bazan sings in "Start Without Me," "like everything I do, it’s misunderstood."

Although the album came as a disappointment, Pedro the Lion was one of my favorite live sets from SXSW two years ago. Hopefully their stop in Austin will prove the same.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

I have a confession to make: I like Puritan literature. I don’t think many functional college students enjoy the Puritans’ works (and for these purposes, I’ll consider myself to be relatively functional), but, just as I can justify my love of Rush and The Gin Blossoms, I feel like I can back this one up. As much as literature anthology authors love to highlight the stoicism, judgmentalism, narrow-mindedness, and prudishness of this sect of early American settlers, I’ve always seen an interesting set of paradoxes at play in the writing of Puritans like Jonathan Edwards and Anne Bradstreet. I understand how readers could be turned off by these authors’ didacticism and emphasis on sin, guilt, and man’s helplessness, and I’ll readily admit that there were some very dangerous aspects of Puritan culture (Salem witch trials, anyone?), but I’ve always felt that the tensions these men and women wrestled with are well worth looking into, even if they carry some ridiculously heavy baggage. The conflicts at work in Puritan life — rationalism vs. emotionalism (see Edwards, a strong proponent of Enlightenment principles and scientific thought but also known for delivering dramatic sermons that aimed for the gut rather than the heart), the justice of rewarding hard work/punishing laziness vs. the grace of charity, contentment in the simple things vs. constantly striving for improvement and expansion (both materially and metaphysically), free will vs. fatalism, the world we experience vs. the world we think will come, personal freedom vs. the interest of the majority — are the same things we fight with, constantly change our minds about, and often times fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion about, and for that reason, I feel that their litearture offers some eloquent commentary on the human condition.

And yes, that introduction has a purpose — after all, we are talking David Bazan here, and the first issue we’re always confronted with in a Pedro the Lion album is how inseperable his Christian faith is from the rest of his existence. Critics docked points from early albums like It’s Hard to Find a Friend and The Only Reason I Feel Secure because of their explicit spirituality and Bible references, while touting Pedro’s (musically and lyrically) lesser albums, the concept-burdened Winners Never Quit and Control, as having more integrity than the rest of his canon. While Pedro’s concept albums are still well worth owning, their incisive socio-political commentary hasn’t held up as well as Bazan’s more personal material, which is somehow simultaneosly more biting and endearing. The more Bazan risks coming across as a hand-wringing Bible-thumper (which he never actually has come across as, but is always mistaken for everytime he slides some mention of "sin" or "God" into a song… seems like the indie rock press is a bit more reactionary than we’d like to think they are, eh?), the better his songs are, it seems.

And why is this? It’s because, like the better Puritan writers, Bazan never resorts to vapid sloganeering and flimsy mental crutches to resolve his human battles. While Control and Winners Never Quit were certainly not without their spiritual under(over?)tones — both dealt heavily with hypocrisy and depravity — Achilles Heel marks a return to form of sorts, as Bazan once again explores his own struggles with the paradoxes of faith, philosophy, our times, and just being a human being. Even when he assumes the voice of a third party or sings a fictional narrative, he does so with an introspective flair that was missing from the storylines of his last two full lengths.

Musically, it also seems like Bazan has tempered the growth of his two previous records with the more humble sensibility of his early days. Songs like "Bands with Managers" and "The Fleecing" sound like the next logical step after It’s Hard to Find a Friend, but janglier, more melodically adventurous cuts like "Keep Swinging", "Arizona", and "Foregone Conclusion" are peppered with the dirtier guitars and spicier drums of Control. While Achilles Heel’s choruses are some of Bazan’s most infectious yet, he doesn’t make the mistake of letting his spartan instrumentation overpower his words, as he did on portions of his other two Jade Tree releases.

After countless listens, I’m struggling to see how any Pedro fan (or casual follower, for that matter) could be truly disappointed with Achilles Heel. Just when it seemed like he may have been switching into artistic autopilot, Bazan whipped out a set of songs that marries the best elements of all of his previous albums. As always, his lyrics are delivered with a most rare integrity — he’s not afraid to admit when he’s struggling, and he’s also not afraid to admit when he feels like he’s right and that you should agree with him. You can love or hate his beliefs all day long, but in the end, you can’t accuse David Bazan of putting out an irrelevant statement about what it means to be alive and uncertain. Before writing him off as close-minded, open your own mind first. And, by all means, enjoy the tunes, because they’re good ‘uns.

Pedro the Lion: Moody and melancholy storytelling

Seattleites Pedro the Lion bring their lilted indie-pop to Bottom of the Hill in support of their new CD, Achilles Heel, their first new release since 2002′s Control. Mainstays on the indie rock scene, and long lumped in the same category as bands such as Sebadoh, Hayden, and Bedhead, Pedro The Lion might not have broad pop appeal, but their songs are pretty and subdued and will have you recalling them long after they’ve stopped playing. Singer David Bazan’s strings his understated vocals out over the persistent chunking of semi-fuzzed guitars; they run the risk of getting lost somewhere in the melancholia of the hair-pushed-in-front-of-your-face indie scene.

But, Pedro the Lion should carry an appeal for any patient listener, even those unfamiliar with the indie-pop oeuvre. Bazan writes simple tales of isolation and despair. Like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the songs take place in the nether-regions of Americana- not quite urban or rural, just lonely. Bazan sings with an almost lullaby-like simplicity. "Discretion", a new song from Achilles Heel, opens with the line "Having no idea that his youngest son was dead/the farmer and his sweet young wife slept soundly in his bed." Bazan hits a mood quickly and holds it for the right amount of time; no song lasts too long. And though most of the songs are subdued and melancholy, they are at least pretty, recognizable and interesting.

Pedro the Lion’s strength is in the cohesive affect of their songs. The new material is a step forward for the band, and should appeal to a broader audience. The songs are emotionally simpler and rely less on storytelling. Both longtime indie-pop veterans and fans of songwriting should visit Bottom of the Hill. In support is longtime indie mainstay John Vanderslice, whose career as an innovator was obscured by a wave of publicity surrounding the release of his song "Bill Gates Must Die".

Lion Roars Gently On Luminous `Achilles Heel’

PEDRO THE LION: PEDRO THE LION’S ACHILLES HEEL (JADE TREE) B+

It could be sour grapes when David Bazan sings about “Bands With Managers” (“Bands with messy hair and smooth white faces”) on the opening track of Pedro the Lion’s latest album. After all, Bazan’s primarily one-man band (TW Walsh currently is the other full-time member) is a darling of the indie underworld but is relatively unknown outside that locale.

But the rest of “Achilles Heel” suggests Bazan has a lot more on his mind than who’s turning up on “TRL.” “Achilles Heel” may not make Pedro the Lion a household name – that’s hardly its point. But the disc establishes Bazan as a premier songwriter. It also will remind listeners that some “alternative” bands once provided an actual alternative to the status quo.

Bazan has the gift of making the mundane meaningful. When he envisions Western states as quarreling lovers in “Arizona,” it’s both strange and funny. By the time he explains rock-paper-scissors at song’s end, he sounds like he’s giving you the secret of life.

The Lion’s music may have some of the lazy qualities of Pavement’s – seemingly offhand musical comments coalescing into a powerful whole. But Bazan’s humanity far outstrips that of the notoriously chilly Pavement; try to imagine Stephen Malkmus encouraging a depressed friend to “Keep Swinging” after a drunken evening ends in tears and soiled pants.

Bazan casts his tales in luminous melodies with understated backing. You’ll be singing along before you even notice the lyrics concern self-amputation and arguments about the Almighty.

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: An Interview With Pedro the Lion

Ask Dave Bazan of Pedro the Lion what he thinks about people who call his songs depressing, and his response is unfailingly polite. "Different people relate to things in different ways," he says. "I don’t take it personally if somebody says that. I’ll just say, ‘I’m sorry it is that way for you. Maybe you shouldn’t listen to it.’" This is typical of Bazan, whose noirish music, which tackles some of the big problems of our society (adultery, corporate malfeisance, broken families), contrasts sharply with his pleasant, sincere demeanor. The man seems to be living proof of the psychological benefits of exorcising your demons through creative activity.

Pedro the Lion’s most recent album, Achilles Heel (Jade Tree), is the band’s fourth LP. PtL has gone through numerous permutations, but the band responsible for Heel features Bazan, frequent collaborator TW Walsh, and James McAlister of Ester Drang on drums. Bazan and Walsh are also involved in a side project, The Headphones, which will put out an album this year with Suicide Squeeze Records.

Achilles Heel is a return to form for Bazan, who says that he "set out to make sort of the logical next album after It’s Hard to Find a Friend." Friend was, Bazan says, "more charming and engaging, and more representative of my personality." He hastens to add that he doesn’t dislike the two records that came in between Friend and Heel, Winners Never Quit or Control, but that they were "more hard rocking, like I thought I had to make rock and roll records. I wanted not to have to kick ass. The songs on Achilles Heel might be too slow or too mellow, but whatever." (The recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer review of a Pedro concert, which compared the band to the Counting Crows, proves that some people definitely don’t get it, but as Bazan would say, whatever.)

The result is that Heel has lost the driving drums and distorted guitars and has gotten much more melodic, highlighting the lyrics and Bazan’s ability to create quietly dissatisfied American characters. The suicidal man sitting in his room with a shotgun, the neglectful husband who’s constantly leaving town, the dumped sweetheart — they’re all here, along with an unfortunate soul who’s fallen underneath a train and is looking up at the rest of the cars passing by, while his legs lie severed on the tracks. ("I was influenced by reading Edgar Allen Poe at an early age," Bazan says. Indeed!)

As one could discern from his subject matter, Bazan thinks about the state of America a lot. He recently started reading Harper’s. "I read that Thomas Frank article about Kansas, and I really think he hit it on the head about the political establishment using the culture war to distract people from where the real issues are," he says. "When you think about how much time people in Congress actually spend [on issues like homosexuality and abortion], it’s nothing. It’s not even on their agenda." Will he try to talk to people about politics from the stage this summer, when Pedro goes on tour? "I’ve been saying some stuff, trying to encourage people to read about politics and talk about it in non-argumentative ways with people, but this year, I feel like that’s not enough. I feel like saying, you need to know that some people you might respect think that Bush is just a little bit of a liar. Unique among other presidential liars. He’s really something special."

Bazan, more than most liberal-talking rock types, knows a thing or two about the culture wars. He’s written about faith and been publicly identified as Christian for years. On his fan page, in the Forums section, fans argue such topics as "if Dave drinks beer, is he still a Christian?" (Seeing as he freely offers "I like bars, and I like to drink," the issue doesn’t seem to be tormenting his soul.) Some people were even more offended by some of the lyrics on Control. One of the songs, "Rapture," is written in the voice of a man having sex with his mistress in a hotel room, who screams "I hear Jesus" at what seems to be the moment of orgasm.

"The more conservative element of the fan base has definitely checked out," says Bazan. "Right after Control [came out], there was confrontation every night. In Minneapolis, I remember about twenty kids standing around me, and backing me up against a wall, and explaining to me that what I was doing was wrong, and all this stuff." What did he say to them? "I basically said ‘I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, if anything, because you don’t even know me, are we in a community together because we’re in the same category, or something? They want it to work where they reprimand me and I see the error of my ways and am like ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to take a break, and when I come back I’m going to be singing songs about Jesus and how much I love him.’"

Bazan still maintains that he is a Christian, but says "Christian culture is full of fear. It’s so reactionary. It’s really sad." (A few songs on Achilles Heel also address this misunderstanding of true faith, like Track 2, "Foregone Conclusions": "You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord/ to hear the voice of the Spirit saying ‘shut the fuck up’/ you thought it must be the Devil trying to make you go astray/ besides it couldn’t have been the Lord, since you don’t believe he talks that way.")

Track 8 on Heel, "I Do," which is voiced by an embittered father witnessing the birth of a son, proves once again that when listening to Bazan, it’s important to separate the lyrics from his actual personality. ("Now that my blushing bride has done what she was born to do/ It’s time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through/ The sperm swims for the egg/ The finger for the ring/ If I could take one back/ I know what it would be.") Bazan is happily married and his wife is expecting a child in October. He lives in a small town about an hour and a half from Seattle. His life sounds like an indie-rock version of the American dream. The studio where Achilles Heel was made is in a building on the same property as his house — about 150 feet away.

Maybe it’s all the rural peace and happiness, or maybe it’s the aforementioned therapeutic act of writing heavy songs, but Bazan’s perspective on the state of the world is heartening and philosophical. "We all find ourselves at different times in history," he says. "The people who lived in Rome, a hundred years before the fall of Rome, they had things to be depressed about, for sure, and if they could have seen the future they would certainly have been bummed. But in the meantime there was life, and living, and all of that. And I feel like we are within one hundred years of the collapse of this country, but regardless, there’s so much to learn and see and take in." And that’s not "depressing" at all.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

David Bazan has one of the most recognizable voices in indie-rock (and possibly one of the most soothing). He lulls ears with a long-drawn-out, composed vocal delivery that brings calmness and quietude. With help from longtime collaborator TW Walsh, and assistance from James McAllister (Ester Drang) on drums, the instrumentations are as comforting as the vocals and Achilles Heel is just as commanding as Pedro’s previous effort Control.

"You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord / To hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the fuck up / You thought it must be the devil trying to make you go astray / Besides it could not have been the Lord because you don’t believe he talks that way."* Lyrically sharp, Bazan’s words are the most potent element of Pedro the Lion’s make-up. Though, unlike Winners Never Quit and Control, lyrically Achilles Heel steers clear of a core concept. Bazan states, "Without pretense, I wanted to un-concept things a bit."

On Control the infectious "Magazine" was hit with endless repeats. Achilles Heel also contains a stand-out gem that’s been stuck on constant rotation in my stereo, "Start Without Me." Upbeat and memorably sweet, it may be my favorite Pedro song to date.

Achilles Heel is a savory collection of warm laid-back songs. While it shows some growth, it also contains rehashed Pedro the Lion elements that have been found on every album since Whole. But if they work, why change? You can really tell Bazan and company had fun on Achilles Heel. The cloud that lingers above Achilles Heel isn’t as disheartening and dark as previous releases. This new sense of clearer skies helps bring solace and reassurance, resulting in one of Pedro the Lion’s finest releases to date, and a progressive step forward for the somber lion.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

David Bazan, alias Pedro the Lion, was raised in a strict Christian household, and you will see kids wearing "WWJD?" bracelets at his concerts. But Bazan is no Bible- thumper. He’s gained a reputation for irritating hard-core Christians by questioning matters of faith, and he ranks Fugazi alongside the church choir as an early musical influence.

Don’t let the prospect of scripture and philosophy scare you; the word "God" never comes up on "Achilles Heel," and the songs unfold like bestselling novels. Unlike his previous two albums, each song on this one, Bazan’s fifth, has its own unique protagonist struggling in vain to measure up when expectations are reduced to thin stereotypes. On "I Do," a male voice buckles under the weight of patriarchy and sings: "It’s time to bury dreams/and raise a son/to live vicariously through." Bazan’s mellow, slightly scruffy voice leads through the tune so the bridge is over and the chorus begun before you even realize it.

Longtime collaborator T.W. Walsh and James McAlister of Ester Drang offer bright supplements to Bazan’s melancholia, feeding us the staples of the indie-rock diet stirred to perfection: bouncy staccato guitar lines, steady drumbeats augmented with egg shakers or tambourines, and synthesizers imitating made-up instruments. Pedro the Lion is music for fans of Elliott Smith and Evan Dando, but smarter and deeper.

Pedro The Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Pedro the Lion front man David Bazan is, without question, a member of America’s emo-rock fraternity: He records for genre clearinghouse Jade Tree, there’s a picture of a cuddly lion on the cover of his new album, and he called his first CD It’s Hard to Find a Friend. But unlike his peers, Bazan doesn’t throw musical hissy fits to make his points; instead, he sings in a low deadpan croon over measured, intricate guitar rock that acts as a sort of counterpoint to the heated predicaments his characters get into. In "Discretion," a tune from Achilles Heel, Pedro’s new album, Bazan sings about the murder of a farmer’s son in the farmer’s field: "Having no idea that his youngest son was dead/The farmer and his sweet young wife slept soundly in his bed." It’s chilling, but only until James McAlister’s rolling drums sweep you into a chorus with a zippy keyboard line.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Complete with artwork from Jesse LeDoux, whose paintings graced The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow, Achilles Heel has a much sunnier feel than Pedro the Lion’s 2002 masterpiece Control. His latest release struggles to reach the heights of his previous album, but Pedro the Lion’s only staple member, David Bazan, has never had a problem turning strife into vivid music, and Achilles Heel is no exception. The album opens with “Bands With Managers,” a familiar sounding and comfortable track prodded on by gently droning guitars and Bazan’s unorthodox vocals, but closer inspection reveals a playful spirit and an upbeat demeanor that betray the often heavy-handed, difficult musings of Control. However, even in Achilles Heel’s most energetic moments — “Forgone Conclusions,” “Discretion,” “Keep Swinging” — Bazan’s voice remains pensively uncertain, albeit hopeful, which is part of what makes this such an enjoyable listen.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

It’s not surprising that Pedro The Lion has some of the most dedicated fans out there. And it doesn’t do justice to mention that PTL has one of the most refreshingly pure sounds in a world full of monotonous or sassy acts. Singer David Bazan is a man who can combine faith and storytelling through uncomplicated lyrics and atop beautiful melodies from bassist Trey Many and drummer Josh Golden. For the novice PTL fan, Achilles Heel might be the most user-friendly album to date, without compromising the amazing songwriting and musical talent. “The Fleecing” is a prime example of simple melodies that spell out Bazan’s interest in his faith, but is considerate enough to keep it as just that.

Grade: A-

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

On "Bands With Managers," the characteristically seething opener to Pedro The Lion’s Achilles Heel, singer-songwriter David Bazan spells out a snide, obliquely fatalistic account of those who seek fame and glory—"bands with messy hair and smooth white faces"—only to encounter danger and doom. Hubris and death are often intertwined in Bazan’s complex moral universe, and "Bands With Managers" would seem to introduce another thematically unified concept album, this time about the treacherous path to a lofty destination that may not be worth pursuing.

But it’s messier than that, for better and for worse. Achilles Heel branches out into heady topics like religion ("Foregone Conclusion"), premature death ("Discretion"), broken bodies ("Transcontinental"), and ill-conceived marriage ("I Do") with striking results, but the songs don’t fit into a cohesive larger statement the way albums like Winners Never Quit and Control do. Musically, it feels like a bit of a hodge-podge, too, as the portentous "Bands With Managers" rubs up against the likes of "Foregone Conclusion" (which sounds for all the world like a lost Lemonheads track) and the unexpectedly slinky "Keep Swinging."

Still, Bazan scatters exquisitely wrought, inimitably pessimistic epiphanies throughout Achilles Heel, spinning morbidly beautiful lines about everything from parenthood—"It’s time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through"—to romantic alienation. (The latter topic fuels the album’s drop-dead closer: "My old man always swore that hell would have no flame / just a front-row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.") Achilles Heel may not cohere as well as its predecessors, but its best moments still chill the blood in wise and winning ways

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

As early as its 1997 debut EP, singer-songwriter David Bazan’s indie band Pedro the Lion demonstrated uncanny maturity in its wit, insight and musical craftsmanship. Melodic, brooding, layered character studies of introspection and situational ethics poured over minimalist guitar strumming and barren percussion. Just when his effective slow, minimalist style was in danger of becoming boring, Bazan later wisely diversified into harder rock.

Issued two years ago, the rockin’ Control was musically and lyrically blatant and vulgar, with the equivalent narrative content of one traditional Pedro song stretched thinly across an entire concept album. While nonetheless a fine record, it forgot the subversive, more unsettling subtlety found in earlier releases. With Achilles Heel , PTL has worked out the kinks and delivers its most intriguing work yet. Bazan’s vulnerable vocals and richly metaphorical songwriting are in full force with an unprecedented range of tempo. The summery guitars and mellotron in “Transcontinental” are seductively inviting, but closer listens reveal that the song is about someone getting mangled under the wheels of a train. That eerie experience of discovery is similar to that of the album overall: simple on the surface, it lures the listener into a complex underworld to confront difficult truths.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

The cast of Pedro the Lion’s latest seems lifted from a lost Arthur Miller tragedy. There are gambling-addict husbands, faithless lovers, and joyless amputees by the dozen. It’s a dour crew, all brought to life through David Bazan’s just-secular-enough-to-sell coo and midtempo balladeering that nearly evoke (gasp) a B-list Coldplay. The gems ("A Simple Plan," "Discretion") pit uplifting melodies against lyrical melancholy, and eschew Bazan’s usual God-fearing parables for blurry impressionism. Even when Bazan takes the pulpit in "Foregone Conclusions" ("You were too busy … to hear the voice of the spirit begging you to shut the fuck up"), the slowed vocals distract from his proselytizing. This subtlety makes for an evocative (if mixed) set of messages, without the Sunday school aftertaste. Thank God.

Beautiful Gloom

On "Bands With Managers," the characteristically seething opener to Pedro The Lion’s Achilles Heel, singer-songwriter David Bazan spells out a snide, obliquely fatalistic account of those who seek fame and glory—"bands with messy hair and smooth white faces"—only to encounter danger and doom. Hubris and death are often intertwined in Bazan’s complex moral universe, and "Bands With Managers" would seem to introduce another thematically unified concept album, this time about the treacherous path to a lofty destination that may not be worth pursuing.

But it’s messier than that, for better and for worse. Achilles Heel branches out into heady topics like religion ("Foregone Conclusion"), premature death ("Discretion"), broken bodies ("Transcontinental"), and ill-conceived marriage ("I Do") with striking results, but the songs don’t fit into a cohesive larger statement the way albums like Winners Never Quit and Control do. Musically, it feels like a bit of a hodge-podge, too, as the portentous "Bands With Managers" rubs up against the likes of "Foregone Conclusion" (which sounds for all the world like a lost Lemonheads track) and the unexpectedly slinky "Keep Swinging."

Still, Bazan scatters exquisitely wrought, inimitably pessimistic epiphanies throughout Achilles Heel, spinning morbidly beautiful lines about everything from parenthood—"It’s time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through"—to romantic alienation. (The latter topic fuels the album’s drop-dead closer: "My old man always swore that hell would have no flame / just a front-row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.") Achilles Heel may not cohere as well as its predecessors, but its best moments still chill the blood in wise and winning ways.

Pedro the Lion [I]Achilles Heel[/I] Review

Pedro the Lion are usually saddled with the twin stigmas "Christian" and "emo"—the hipster double whammy. But the Washington band’s moral melancholia is no preachier than Dostoyevsky’s, their dark character studies no mushier than Randy Newman’s. The only truly zealous thing about them is their live show, which inspires a rapt response: You can imagine Pedro fans in their scattered bedrooms, bonding in anonymous union over the group’s majestic drone-rock like the characters singing along with Aimee Mann in Magnolia. Singer David Bazan is, in fact, a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose rhythms he might have absorbed: Bazan sings like a steadycam moves, and matches his Kurt Cobain twang and Lou Barlow boyishness to a minimal word count.

"That’s not a conscious decision," he says of his slow flow, speaking just as gradually over the phone from his home in rural Washington. "It’s something I remember my dad, who’s also a musician, commenting on early: ‘Man, you’ve got to bring the pace of those lyrics up.’"

Bazan writes what’s easy for him to sing, he explains. The effect is both striking and humorous on Pedro the Lion’s fourth and best full-length album, Achilles Heel [Jade Tree]. On "The Fleecing," every word aches as if it were relinquished only after hours of torture: "I can’t say it like I sing it," Bazan croons. "I can’t sing it like I think it/ I can’t think it like I feel it/ And I don’t feel a thing."

Though the singer won’t generalize about his audience, that song suggests how wearying the bond with fans can be. Having formed Pedro the Lion in 1998 after kicking around Seattle’s hardcore scene for years (he shared a group with Damien Jurado), and built a national audience in 1999 out of what was left of the all-ages circuit, the singer has more recently retreated into the private comforts of marriage, and moved to the Kitsap peninsula in Washington, about an hour and a half outside Seattle. (Longtime bassist T.W. Walsh lives ten miles away in another town.) It was here in his country home studio that he recorded Achilles Heel, 11 songs about men (suicidal fathers, self-righteous evangelists) doing wrong.

Bazan has never been indie-rock’s Christian answer man, but being both eminently approachable and openly born-again, he finds fans coming up to him saying things like, "So, how’s your walk with the Lord going?" "Those sorts of questions are really inappropriate for strangers to ask other strangers," Bazan says. "People usually want to make some sort of judgment. Like, ‘Oh, you’ve backslidden.’"

Pedro the Lion do have an unusually easy rapport with most devotees, however. In concert Bazan actually takes questions from the stage, answering them all, no matter how bizarre (typical example: "Who invented the pencil?"). In private, the singer is a little embarrassed by the effect his music has had. How do you respond, for example, to a man who gives you a picture of his cute toddler daughter, saying she was born with Down Syndrome on the morning of 9/11, and that one of your songs calmed him through the day’s panic?

So Bazan finds sanctuary in the more popular American cathedral: the movie house. "When I’m watching movies there’s always a lot ideas that come, so sometimes I have to duck out and write for a little bit," he says. "I haven’t yet done this, but I want to start going to matinees where there’s not a lot of people, and sit in the very back row with a laptop, just a little bit drunk and watch the movie, typing madly." Paul Thomas Anderson would be proud.