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May 9, 2004

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The charmingly named Pedro the Lion consists of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist David Bazan, sidekick TW Walsh and James McAllister of labelmates Ester Drang on drums. Specialising in political, lyrically complex portrayals of the ashes of the American dream, Achilles’ Heel is an album about human frailty and the complexity of everyday emotions. After two albums functioning around concept narratives and revelling in a certain musical heaviness, this latest effort sees Bazan and co attempting to de-clutter their music, limiting lyrical themes to one track only, and stripping out much of the musical baggage that perhaps encumbered earlier work.

Bazan’s oeuvre sounds a lot like other clever, folksy singers – Jeff Buckley, Evan Dando are immediate references. But at the same time, his lyrics and arrangements carry a debt to Guthrie or Seeger-influenced US folk music, the approach that sees the guitar as a weapon with which to kill fascists. Opener Bands with Managers is a pointed but downbeat statement of purpose, while Foregone Conclusions really does sound like the Lemonheads. Songs ponder tricky relationships, man’s isolation, everyday sexism and violence, without some of the preachiness and didacticism of earlier work. A Simple Plan is an affecting meditation on the family man under a communist utopia, while I do looks at domestic patriarchalism.

There’s a pleasantly easy feel to proceedings, with effortless musicianship from Messrs Bazan, Walsh and McAlister. Only a strange droning on The Fleecing and some synth and backwards guitar on Transcontinental – a multi-layered examination of paralysis – complicate proceedings. Problematically, that leaves the second half of the album with no great distance to travel, re-treading similar chords and tunes. Although it’s good stuff, there are few innovations here, and while the simplicity is welcome, you may not always notice that there’s an album playing.

Bazan is a great writer, with a unique voice and fine comrades. Somewhere between his previous work and this effort, there’s a classic. Good though Achilles’ Heel is, this isn’t it. 7/10

No Ripcord

Ben Bollig