23 Productions has come to be one of the most interesting labels around. When I see the 23 Productions logo, I expect weird, peripheral sounds with a heavily organic bend. Pfeifer Sam does not fall into these categories in any way. I was impressed by the packaging on first glance, and was excited to see what the music had to offer. Despite the fact that "The Flower Garland School" was produced by 23 Productions head Clay Ruby, this release is as straightforward a record as you'll ever hear on the 23 Productions imprint.
Pfeifer Sam write songs with fairly well-defined structure to them, but they layer them with an array of instrumentation to keep things interesting. "The Flower Garland School" is the ultimate showcase of Jacob Tibbs' songwriting skills, and anyone who has a discernable ear will recognize just how good he is. Over a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, Rhodes, piano, organ, harmonium, violins, and a variety of tape manipulations and field recordings (provided by Ruby himself), Tibbs is like a hawk looking for prey. Comparisons to Califone and even Wilco come to mind. These densely textured songs are like an open field full of possibilities; I hear new things with each subsequent listen. I swear these songs have cocaine in them because after I heard the album once, I had to listen to it constantly; it was like a daily fix that couldn't be ignored.
Honestly, I can't find a weak moment on "The Flower Garland School," and while there aren't many parts of the album that simply blow me away, it's a ridiculously strong record. "Escalator: Overdrive" moves across the landscape like smoke from a distant grass fire. It's full of nostalgic moments in its lazy movements. Acoustic guitars are the basis for this track, but it's the accents that make it stand out. Intermittent piano strokes and various effect-laden electric guitar bursts act like exclamation marks for the most important memories the song conveys. Also of note is the doubled drums which are totally brilliant. Add in Tibbs? excellent lyrics and smooth voice, backed by the angelic singing of Jessica Dietzler, and this will have everyone who hears it clamoring for more. This is a truly excellent song, and goes to show how something seemingly simple can be turned into a complex, breathing vehicle.
While Pfeifer Sam are the best during their quiet moments, they pull off the loud stuff without any problems. "Fletch and Sons Real Estate Co." is the perfect example. Even though half of the song is at a relatively low volume, it?s best when the distortion kicks in and the drums punch a hole in the wall. It's an excellent mix of both worlds. Acoustic plucks line the verse while Tibbs sings softly, but guitar feedback starts fading in right before the chorus to warn the listener of the coming onslaught. And even when it?s in full flight, the quiet acoustic guitar still floats underneath, giving the song an organic feel to it. They get bonus points for such an effective use of bongos as well.
I must also mention "The Reptile and Rose." If I had to pick one song to represent Pfeifer Sam, it would be this one. It encompasses all the aspects to Pfeifer Sam that make them such an impressive band. It starts off slow with acoustic guitars backed by quiet field recordings and various tape manipulations. Also, this song uses violins and Rhodes, two of my favorite instruments, so it's no surprise it's my favorite track on the album. "The Reptile and Rose" jumps between being mellow and acoustic-based to more upbeat and heavily layered with a variety of electric instruments. Most memorable is the full-on rock portion of the track; it's full of buzzing synths and Godspeed-esque screaming electric guitars. It's dense as fuck. But just as soon as the overpowering loudness arrives, the lights are turned off and it's back to its stark, quiet origins. More bonus points for Clay Ruby's addition of a vibraphone to the end. This is such an excellent track. One listen to this, and nobody will be able to deny that Pfeifer Sam are a damn good band.
Pfeifer Sam shocked me from the opening moments of "The Flower Garland School." I would have never expected anything like this to be released on 23 Productions, but am glad that it was. Over the course of 40 minutes, this quartet from Wisconsin has constructed a minor masterpiece. With the added handmade packaging, this is a release worth every bit of its cover price, and those who give Pfeifer Sam a chance will not be disappointed. I can't wait to see where this band goes next. 8/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)