PEDRO THE LION
On its fifth album, "Achilles Heel," Pedro the Lion sounds as if it's really coming together as a band. That's no small accomplishment, since it isn't.
Pedro is an alias for Seattle singer-songwriter David Bazan, who plays guitar, synth, bass and percussion, although sometime collaborator T.W. Walsh has an expanded role here, and two other musicians also contribute. There must have been plenty of overdubbing, yet the album has a lively ensemble sound. Such new songs as "Keep Swinging" (whose expansiveness suggests Built to Spill) and "Discretion" give Pedro's characteristic melancholy an unexpected vigor.
Bazan is among the many contemporary alt-rockers who've clearly spent some time listening to Neil Young. Most of these 11 tunes (two written or co-written by Walsh) are basically country-rock laments, but their vibe is more Bethesda than Bakersfield -- suburban, college-educated and more than a bit sardonic. "The class war is over / And everybody wins," sings Bazan in "A Simple Plan," yet he doesn't sound as if he believes that. For all this album's musical successes, its worldview is not exactly triumphant.
Like Pedro the Lion, John Vanderslice makes folkie-rock that's tempered with machine-generated tones. On "Cellar Door," his fourth solo album, the electronic effects are prominent yet not overbearing. The singer-songwriter, who operates San Francisco's Tiny Telephone recording studio, embellishes his earnest, homespun sound with distortion, backward loops, discordant thumps and occasional strings. The most striking thing about the album, however, is its outrage. While a few of the songs take their lyrics or premise from literature -- "Pale Horse" is derived from a Shelley poem and "When It Hits My Blood" from Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Requiem for a Dream" -- "Heated Pool and Bar" is more newsworthy. Invoking Colombia, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, he sings, "You can't be nice . . . you can't be good" with a passion rare in contemporary indie-rock.
-- Mark Jenkins
Appearing Thursday at Black Cat. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Pedro the Lion, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8109; to hear John Vanderslice, press 8110. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)