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June 1, 2004

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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.

CD World

Peter S. Sholtes