Graded on a Curve:
Peel Dream Magazine, Pad

Joseph Stevens is a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter currently working as Peel Dream Magazine, with his latest album under the moniker a considerable departure from the shoegaze-fuzz pop-motorik action of its predecessors. What’s changed? Well, there are bold moves into the baroque pop arena with some bossa nova flavor and indie pop erudition. The new record is also an undisguised dive into the conceptual, and yet not a particularly weighty listen, as the 15 tracks unwind in a crisp 43 minutes. Pad is out October 7 on limited edition white vinyl (with or without a bonus 4-song 7-inch, the choice is yours) and compact disc through Slumberland and Tough Love.

Pad isn’t a complete break from Peel Dream Magazine’s past, though the new disc is a significant detour from the unrestrained Stereolab-isms of 2020’s Agitprop Alterna. What ties Stevens’ three full-length albums together is strong songwriting, though this aspect naturally comes to the fore on his latest, as the fuzziness gives way to gentler atmospheres, with vibraphone up front in opener “Not in the Band,” and flute prominent in the title track to follow.

“Pictionary” is more of a forthright chiming indie pop strummer on the sophisto side of the equation, which is to say, there’s nothing loud or unkempt about it. “Wanting and Waiting” is no less urbane, as it sidelines the strum for a sort of laid back flute and mallets-laden art pop with a funky undercurrent. Spreading out even more, “Self Actualization Center” introduces banjo, faux-mellotron strings, sci-fi synth secretions, and vocal harmonizing with Samira Winter into the mix, and “Walk Around the Block” is a nifty flute-driven instrumental that oozes cinematic tension.

More to the point of Stevens’ approach, the track reinforces Pad’s conceptual orientation, as the songs tell a story of Stevens’ getting fictitiously booted from a musical outfit (“Not in the Band”) and his subsequent attempts to rejoin, with numerous detours along the way, and eventual success (“Back in the Band”). Stevens’ lyrics enhance this narrative without feeling awkward or forced, as “Hamlet” combines psych-tinged folk with a late-night drum machine vibe a la Young Marble Giants (see also: Yo La Tengo circa And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out).

“Penelope’s Suitors,” another brief instrumental, brings in more faux strings, as “Hiding Out” follows, complete with bossa-inflection and touches of banjo, with this angle continuing in “Jennifer Hindsight” amid the structural fragility of those programmed rhythms. Yet another instrumental, “Reiki,” with its incessant mallet rhythm pattern, radiates a bit like another Stevens, that’d be Sufjan, and in Phillip Glass mode, but with a touch of symphonic psych hovering on the borders.

The home stretch of the album has some pleasant twists, like the resonating keyboards and the concluding horn regality in “La Sol,” the deeper baroque tones in “Message the Manager,” and the persistence of banjo in “Roll in the Hay,” a song that combines with closer “Back in the Band” to insinuate an affinity with Brian Wilson at his most eccentric.

In terms of conceptualism, Peel Dream Magazine’s latest has been compared to Nilsson’s The Point!, and that’s fair, but I also hear a similarity to Van Dyke Parks. That’s not to suggest Pad is in the same league as Song Cycle (or The Point!, for that matter), but Stevens has the right idea(s). At a few spots, I even had thoughts of a more modestly scaled Ladybug Transistor, which is a totally positive turn of events.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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