Vancouver trio Pale Red capture lightning in a bottle on their second release.
Growing up, I sang in a local church choir. I never cared for religion — I was kicked out of Sunday school for misbehaving — but the singing, that’s what kept me coming back. I have no recorded evidence of this choir gig, but the image of a bunch of seven-year-olds, deep in concentration, with the proverbial eye of the Almighty gazing down upon them, sounds like an amusing combination of true beauty and absolute chaos: Simon is picking his nose, Dalton can’t stop swaying so none of his whole notes are even close to whole, Adrian is pitch perfect, and Alaina doesn’t know the words. Chaos, but kinda cute.
When I listen to Heavy Petting, the near-perfect and instantly intoxicating second album by Vancouver’s Pale Red, I can’t help but wonder if at least one of the three members has a history with choirs. These would-be cherubian voices blended together is one of the most endearing sounds I’ve heard on a record so far this year. Usually, it’s anchored by Charlotte Coleman’s rich, emotive, but totally cool vocal presence and supported by the peppy-yet-punk yelps of drummer Portia Boehm and the dry monobartione of guitar player Myles Black. Sometimes they sing in almost-rounds, sometimes they do straight-up harmonies, and on “International Waters” they make themselves sound like an ocean being pumped with gaseous bubbles from some underwater volcano.
Beyond the brilliant and roughly crafted vocal arrangements, the actual melodies are earworms. Front to back, song after song, the album burrows further into your brain. It only takes about two listens to be hip to each track, with most coming in under the three-minute mark.
Thematically, Heavy Petting is a clever celebration of being free from those difficult years where you’re not a kid, but you’re definitely not yet a mature adult. The title itself is a humorous allusion to the conservative, seventh grade health class name for the stage of intimacy before “intercourse.” Album opener, “Leave Any Room”, is about feeling free after getting a restraining order against your stalker, who at some point you had fallen for. “IDK (Loud)” is a Dealian personification of feeling like “I’m not the same that I was before,” a feeling brought to life by the noisy and unpredictable, song-long guitar solo. Black takes over lead vocal duties on “Tie and a Blindfold”, which from what I can gather, seems to be about discovering kinky sex. Appropriately, Pale Red sounds more excited about being who they are on this track than any other on the album. Highlight “Blink” finds Coleman pleading to be taken back to a time before she was stuck in someone else’s brain, or perhaps it’s her own grown-up thinker that she wants to escape. Their cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” is a perfect fit in this collection of wistful pop songs. It’s focus on simply kissing fits nicely into the album’s overall yearning for a simpler time.
Heavy Petting is indie rock in its most classic form. Recorded and mostly written over a two day period, Pale Red capture lightning in a bottle. It’s raw, unrefined feel make it an urgent and essential listen, especially since most “indie rock” these days is anything but unrefined. It achieves a perfect balance between a melancholic desire for youthfulness and a realization that having the experience to turn those young, dumb years into something as cathartic as a pop song, means they might have been worth the struggle. This contradiction is best captured during the end of “The Hum and the Glow,” as the Pale Red choir break into a wordless chorus. It sounds uplifting and confident at first, but with every dissonant, warbled note, a sense of chaos creeps in. Chaos, not exactly cute, but certainly honest and endearing.