Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 41: Fewer Moving Parts (David Bazan, 2006)

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It was early spring of 2012 and two friends and I were winding through Williamsburg toward the East River, working our way toward the apartment of a stranger. The building was one of those swanky, newly constructed shiny high-rises that had been and continue to pop up and penetrate the Brooklyn skyline, stalagmite-like. We entered, nodded to the doorman like we belonged there, got into the elevator, pushed the button labeled “PH,” and up and up we went.

The sun was setting over Manhattan as we entered the apartment, and in the far corner, beyond the forty or so mingling attendees, tucked into the semicircular crush of couches and chairs—there, setting up a floor lamp that he had seemingly brought with him, was David Bazan.

Bazan is a curious character in the world of indie rock, mainly given his past as a so-called Christian rock musician, and his present as an apostate. While his faith was true and steady and the music and lyrics were certainly not put-on, “Christian rock” was a badge that, if he wore at all, he wore partially obscured. He formed Pedro the Lion—less a band than a process, he says—in 1995 while attending a Pentecostal liberal arts college just outside of his hometown of Seattle. It’s not hard to find write-ups of Pedro the Lion’s music that are completely oblivious to the fact that the band had any ties to the Christian rock scene at all, so subtle the songs were. Heavy-handedness was never the way. At school, where this son of a Pentecostal music pastor spent a couple years studying religion and philosophy before dropping out to focus on touring, he began to shed, as he puts it, “the first, most absurd layers of his cultural belief system—namely the Pentecostal layers.”

What started turning him was a growing awareness that the Christianity he had practiced was in fact blocking the kind of ethical behavior he wanted to engage in. Over the years, to the dismay of many family, friends, and fans, that shedding would become more and more complete. For a while, it seemed that the space his jettisoned religious baggage left was being filled with alcohol. By mid-2004, Bazan’s drinking was becoming a serious problem. He ditched the Pedro the Lion moniker the following year—ending a ten-year run—and took it upon himself to cut out on his own, to “go solo,” culminating in the 2006 self-release of his debut EP under his own name—and this week’s Album of the Week—Fewer Moving Parts.

Eyeing the track list, the first things you notice about the album is that it is comprised of five songs performed in electric, full-band arrangement, and then those same five songs are performed again, in order, with just acoustic guitar and voice. In the hands of a lesser artist, this move—particularly on an album of essentially brand new songs—might fall totally flat, but Bazan has a way about his acoustic arrangements that both breathe new life into the tunes—a new perspective, not least for most via a new key—and somehow radiate with the glowing remainder of the full-band sound with minimal tools: the second iteration is haunted by the specter of the first. In this sense it’s anything but redundant.

Looking at the first song, “Selling Advertising,” as an example, the initial, full-band instance is bold and nearly fanfare-ish with its wild drum fills and pew-pewing synths, underpinning the lyrics which lay sardonically into music reviewers, saying, “You're so creative with your reviews / of what other people do / How satisfying that must be for you,” comparing the artist/critic relationship to an ancient holy war. In the B-section, the drums chill out and the guitars accompany the voice with a counter-line that is crisp and logical—something you might hear in a Beatles song. The full band version ends with another, more overt Beatles shout-out: as Bazan sings, “And if you get tired of making taste for free / you can always start a band with me / or anybody,” there is final swelling crescendo with backing-vocal “ah”s channeling the lovable Liverpudlians.

Compare this to the much more relaxed acoustic version that almost slips into existential sadness while listing the ways a click-hungry online music reviewer makes their living: “selling advertising / tracking trends / corralling demographics / and maximizing traffic,” ending in a whisper. Throughout the acoustic version—and indeed, through almost all the acoustic tracks—Bazan’s voice and guitar are doubled, making for a really full sound, but also affording him the opportunity to pare down even more, as in the ending of “Selling Advertising,” where on the final line of the song (“or anybody”), one of the voices drops, leaving just one, sounding more vulnerable than it ever might have if it were a single voice the whole time.

The third (and eighth) track, “Fewer Broken Pieces,” is an semi-ironic take on Bazan’s going solo. “I had to let some go,” he sings, “don’t think I don’t regret it / ’cause I do and I don’t / think I’m better off alone.” A compellingly mixed message occurs in that line due to the enjambed phrase “’cause I do and I don’t,” which could conceivably tie to either the phrase before or after it—either “don’t think I don’t regret it, ’cause I do and I don’t” or “’cause I do and I don’t think I’m better off alone.” The cover art, by graphic artist Zak Sally, shows Bazan, Onceler-like, with an ax shouldered, staring straight-faced, straight ahead, leaving behind him a field of mere stumps. Yes, fewer moving parts mean fewer broken pieces, but it gets complicated when you have to break off pieces to get there. The song ends, “Man we could have had a big sound / but I love to let my good friends down.”  

Something I love about Bazan songs, particularly ones on this EP, is how little they rely on traditional verses, choruses, bridges, and so on. They move as the stories move, creating their own unique forms. In addition, long stretches of lyrics, often meted out in short bursts, cover tons of ground. These lengthy sentences force you to listen to the whole of it to get the payoff.

In “Cold Beer and Cigarettes,” for example, the song builds to a peak in which the narrator, a wayward husband and father on a three-day bender, bellows at the senseless cruelness of God after witnessing a multi-car fire. To get to that moment, we hear, above a steadily building arrangement, “A car’s on fire in the parking lot / and nobody wants it to rain / but God isn’t listening / so all of the windshields glisten / The water and oil mix / causing the fire to spread / to five or six / innocent automobiles / waiting in their nearby spots / What a cruel God we’ve got!”

In Bazan’s post-Christian mode, there seems to remain in him a Job-like fist-shaking interaction with a God that likely isn’t there. But more than that, there is a pragmatism that guides his thinking. In a lovely interview with the journal Image, Bazan said the following, which really struck me, and is as good a place as any to end:

“I used to believe that justice was coming in the future, at the hand of a creator who was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. I no longer believe that. I think that justice is the responsibility of us all, now. That other view is, on the one hand, understandable as a comfort to the people who will never get justice in this life, but for those of us who have the opportunity to create justice, it’s a cop-out… It’s not just my own efforts, though it relies heavily on them; it’s how evolution continues to push forward through the offspring of people who give a shit and are taking justice seriously.”

Take a listen to Fewer Moving Parts and go hear Bazan perform when you can.

He’s still out there, doing the work.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.