Review: National Beekeepers Society – Pawn Shop Etiquette

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Nov. 24, 2008

The record’s title track begins with muted guitar notes, the humming of an organ and the soft, occasional strum of an acoustic guitar. The resulting mood, accumulated near the end of 13 songs and 34 energetic minutes, is one of exhaustion, if not a kind of broken-down resolution, a tired resolve. “Like a sick, sad dog, you’ve been trained/ to an idle happiness/ Hope you change,” the singer offers, his voice a solitary figure. “Pawn shop etiquette is demeaning/ Pawn shop etiquette is demanding.” The songs then builds, accented by semi-soaring electric guitar, the understated shuffle of drums, the creeping insinuation of sliced-up white noise, but it never quite reaches a fever, instead choosing to maintain a somber pulse. The result is emotive, even unsettling.

What’s even stranger about the song, the record’s last, than its apparent attention to melancholy is how much it differs from what surrounds it. You can say plenty of things – and you should – about Pawn Shop Etiquette, the sophomore outing from Madison’s National Beekeepers Society, but one adjective that rarely, rarely, rarely will come to mind is mournful. The record surges and bristles with a startling energy, the kind of enthusiasm and focus of purpose to which one hopes young bands still aspire. This is music played with blood constantly pumping through the veins – exciting, life-affirming stuff – and not some academic exercise in genre mimicry, no matter how much it pledges allegiances to the ghosts and purveyors of pop’s past. This is a record to get excited about.

And where does all that enthusiasm lead us? Well, every song on the disc seems to fall neatly into place, from the choppy guitars and distorted fuzz-bass drive of the album-opening “Look At Me” (“Look at me, look at me/ I’m on a magazine/ Pretty people should be heard/ Pretty people should be seen”) to the bluesy asides of “Suburbanite” to the slacker-revolution Pavement-isms and guitar meltdowns of the incredible “Confidence.” The record seems to far out-span its running time and, let’s cut to the chase, it shows a firm grasp of hooks and melody that should have critics drooling all over themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than on gems like “So Hardcore,” which buttresses catchy, “My Sharona”-style verses with snarky vocals and psych-rock bridges, or “Given In,” with its rousing guitars and hand-claps, or the too-short romp “Upon The Hills of Georgia.” (Only complaint on “Georgia:” if you’re going to go to the trouble and quote Pushkin, make the vocals a little more audible.)

Elsewhere, the quartet cranks up verses and choruses that exhibit just how tightly wound an outfit they are. For this, turn to the excellently titled “Orange Is For Apathy,” where guitar solos and a background of screamed vocals float above and around electronically assisted percussion, or “Sixty Five,” which, glassy guitars and all, is one of the most danceable tracks in the mix.

“Don’t Go Takin’” could make The Kinks blush. “Fall of Rome,” with its “Where Is My Mind?” intro on acoustic guitar, channels The Pixies. “Lazy” starts as a lazy Sunday blues exercise but, once it kicks into gear, will kick you flat on your back.

Is it a great record? Perhaps. It has a focus, a kind of sonic theme running through the proceedings, that you’re not likely to find in many records this year. In short, it’s composed without sounding as such and that’s no small feat. It’s invigorating. It’s as catchy as the winter flu. And it delivers on all the promise of the group’s jangly-guitared, self-titled debut and then some. What more could you want?

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