Discovering Pocket Vinyl is comparable to stumbling upon an obscure indie film on Netflix no one else has seen. Think of a movie that doesn’t carry the flash of a blockbuster or the hype of film festival honors but still has one key ingredient: absolute honesty. It may not be the strongest release, but the scenes stick in your head for years to come.
That’s the essence of Pocket Vinyl in a few sentences. More directly, Eric Stevenson sings and plays piano in a manner that rests somewhere between indie, pop and a singer-songwriter. Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth paints on stage at each show, and the paintings are auctioned off at the end of the night.
The duo’s new album, Tin, blends the piano of Ben Folds, the spiritual conflict of David Bazan and incredibly unique autobiographical lyrics. The band’s latest release trades Pocket Vinyl’s full-band approach for a simplified sound driven almost exclusively by piano and vocals. (This may explain why the dynamics rarely raise above a melancholy mezzo forte.) The lack of range and similar lyrical themes from track-to-track cause songs to blend together. By contrast, the album is strongest when things are lightly mixed up for a moment or two, like in the brass section of “Crest” or the strangely upbeat “Tomorrow.”
While I’d argue their 2013 release Death Anxiety was a press kit away from a masterpiece, Tin occasionally lacks the energy and poetic delivery that originally brought the band to my attention. Lyrics are often repeated where they could pack a second punch, such as in the otherwise standout track “Romanticize” where the chorus grows dull at the line “I still look back / I still look back…” before coming to an expressive explanation for separation from childhood friends in the following verses.
Occasional weak spots aside, this album is notably well-written, especially when it comes to the lyrics. The themes of doubt and religious indecisiveness that were present on their previous album return on Tin, most effectively on track “Sink,” which ends in open uncertainty with the line “I still pray, but it’s a private hell not hearing back.” Other topics — such as mortality (“Cure”), suicide (“Tomorrow”) or hope (“Optimist”) — are expressed in a manner that provoke a mental conversation. Even if the music itself doesn’t do it for you, the album is worth a listen for those struggling between faith and doubt. Give it a listen or two and reflect on the subject matter presented with elegance by this talented couple.