“Baby can’t do no wrong,” David Bazan sings on Lo Tom’s debut self-titled LP. “I think it’s pretty cool.” The former-and-back-again Pedro the Lion frontman is spinning his well-worn yarn of penetrating commentary, his infamous examinations of the romantic underbelly of a traumatized society. Only this time, something’s different: The line in question is elegantly underscored by TW Walsh’s soaring vocal harmony and moaning string bends, the unmistakable jangle of Starflyer 59 mastermind Jason Martin’s guitar doubling the steely wails, and the steady beat of Trey Many — the Starflyer drummer who’s backed most of these men’s bands — deftly riding underneath.
This is Lo Tom.
All four musicians are longtime friends who’ve been helping out in each other’s bands for nearly two decades, finally teaming up for an indie-rock “supergroup” album of immense (but characteristically understated) importance. Though it’s technically been in the works for years, the bulk of Lo Tom was recorded in just two sessions of a few hours each. “(It) makes me wish we worked harder on it,” Walsh tells HM of the hype surrounding the record’s release. “(I) never imagined people would be paying this much attention.”
It doesn’t matter, though, because the Lo Tom guys apparently worked on this thing precisely as much as it needed. A more perfect collaboration between Bazan, Walsh, Martin, and Many couldn’t be imagined any greater than what actually came to be. For fans of each songwriter’s main band – the ’90s youth group crew who found new, tough questions in Pedro’s “Secret of the Easy Yoke” or felt captivating comfort in Starflyer’s “We’re the Ordinary” – the dad-rock apex of Lo Tom is exact fulfillment. And dad rock it is, but not in a bad way. After all, all four band members are fathers; so are a lot of the fans who grew up listening to the Tooth and Nail Records roster that birthed both Pedro the Lion and Starflyer 59.
The eight blue collar songs on Lo Tom waste no time and cut no corners, and the compositions represent an endearing, Cliffs Notes encapsulation of each musician’s decades of output. “Another Mistake” rocks with the power of Starflyer’s mid-’90s Americana swagger. “Bubblegum” is a Pedro-all-grown-up “I Am Always the One Who Calls.” All of it is good.
The cream of the crop are probably the bookends: the opening one-two punch of “Covered Wagon” and “Overboard,” and the Chrindie-superstars-as-jam-band closer of “Lower Down.” As for the latter, we never knew an electric guitar shootout between Walsh and Martin could be such a rush. While Bazan waxes esoteric about the taste of evil and the futile desire to “chase the sound,” the two string-slingers exchange slick jabs of sound until the tune fades out. (Of course, we’d love to hear what happened after it cuts off.)
How did we get here? Are we living in an alternate universe? What did we do to deserve this album? Time, it seems, has mellowed both us and them. Bazan has effectively wrapped his 11-year solo career with what would be a perfect new-era Pedro the Lion album, and it features his quintessential collaborators. We can only hope the actual Pedro 2.0 continues Bazan’s revitalized sense of songcraft, a lifetime pursuit seemingly reinvigorated by his creative friends in Lo Tom.
But who are we to assume what Bazan will offer us next? “No one knows your name,” he declares towards the end of “Pretty Cool,” “and that’s how I’ll get away with it – talking sh-t.” Is he speaking to his listeners? Is he referring to us, the music press? Is it just more mysterious dialogue among the mainly fictional characters in his compact, indie-rock tales of abandon? We may never know for certain, but we still think it’s pretty cool.
Photo by Melissa Wax