San Francisco’s PARDONER are back with a driving noise pop single entitled “Donna Said”, and news of a brand new album, their first for the venerable Bar/None Records. It’s their first label release since 2017’s Uncontrollable Salvation (Father/Daughter Records), which garnered them praise in Pitchfork and NPR, and made them a staple of live sets around the Bay.
“Donna Said” is the first track off the forthcoming Came Down Different, and sets the stage with a blown out loop of distorted guitars before breaking into what the band describe as “a normal pop track with some underlying menace”. It’s a preview of what’s turned out to be their poppiest album yet, but for Pardoner, that still means plenty of frenetic drumming and crushing guitars.
Drawn toward each other by some magnetic force and a mutual love of Yo La Tengo and Polvo, the early conversations that led to forming Pardoner wouldn’t have happened had it’s members not been living in the dorms at San Francisco State University. The primordial soup of spending countless hours around other creatives on an undergraduate campus has given the world no shortage of great bands, but for the time being, it’s only an anecdote from a pre-pandemic world.
Built around the core trio of Max Freeland, Trey Flanigan, and River van den Berghe, Pardoner quickly became a force to be reckoned with, melding slacker rock attitude with pummeling hardcore for a visceral sound not unlike a trip to the dentist’s office and a novocaine high. The band even have their own visual language, with record sleeves and t-shirts adorned in Flanigan’s distinct, psychedelic drawings. Every release since their 2015 inception has seen the group dial up their songcraft, culminating in a pair of exceptional LP’s – 2017’s Uncontrollable Salvation, and last years Playin’ On A Cloud. That same year, Freeland skipped town for Canada (who can blame him), and for a brief moment it looked like the band’s prolific run would be cut short, no longer fueled by proximity and spontaneity.
However, fate had other plans, and determined that the world was in need of another Pardoner album. With the addition of longtime friend Colin Burris on bass, the group concluded that in a world of constant uncertainty, their love of pummeling riffs and irreverent one-liners could be a grounding force.
In classic fashion, their new album Came Down Different, and first for Bar None Records, was recorded in a whirlwind two days with veteran producer and root beer aficionado Jack Shirley. Pulling from demos Freeland had recorded with the help of like minded Vancouver punks Dumb, and new ideas birthed from a month of incessant rehearsal at their old SF lockout, the decision to double down on the band has yielded their best album to date.
Without losing their angular weirdness, the album features some of their most pop moments yet, even occasionally ditching the foreman shouting for genuine hooks. Opener “Donna Said” begins with a gauzy sample from one of Freeland’s 4-track experiments, before a wall of feedback bleeds into a tangle of loose guitars and he makes the caustic proclamation “I got feelings and guitar, I wanna trade it for cash”. The aptly titled “Spike” erupts at breakneck speed, barely clocking in at over a minute but packing in the perfect dose of jagged guitars and drum fills. “They want twice the results in half the time!” bellows Freeland, lamenting the bleak state of employment, where, in a pandemic strapped world, evil bosses around the world are wringing every last drop out of their staff, who should feel so lucky to even have the opportunity to bleed for money. When the band comes in behind the dystopian opening riff on the title track, it’s hard not to lean back and think, “damn, these guys are good”.
Despite the juggernaut heft across much of the album, there’s no shortage of head bopping groove to be found. “Bunny’s Taxi” see’s the rhythm section operate like synchronized swimmers under snaking guitar leads, and the levity of “I Wanna Get High To The Music” provides a brief respite from the onslaught. The bubbling, Velvet Underground riff of “Lucky Day” builds with a sly grin before erupting into a vicious d-beat just for the hell of it, reminding us that in Pardoner’s universe, every moment of calm is stalked by a torrential dread, and the only antidote is a good time, however brief.
It’s fitting that the band’s third album will be released on the label responsible for an early Yo La Tengo record (1990’s Fakebook), and that half the songs were written in a wonky tuning Freeland stumbled on while trying to learn Polvo songs. Came Down Different serves as a full circle testament to Pardoner’s staying power, and their rightful place as one of America’s most exciting rock bands.
Pardoner is Max Freeland (vocals, guitar), Trey Flanigan (vocals, guitar), River van den Berghe (drums), and Colin Burris (bass).
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