BEIRUT: “Oh no, all is lost,” singer Erin Mikaelian croons in her breathy voice, sounding not in the least concerned. It’s a juxtaposition that’s characteristic of the songs on “Twisted Times,” the debut album of Lebanese indie band Pindoll, which is due to be released at a launch concert Saturday.
The band combines a dizzying range of influences, genres and styles to produce a finished product that is reminiscent of dozens of bands while at the same time being not quite like any of them. Described as “jazz/rock fusion,” the music bears traces of such diverse elements as ska, classic rock’n’roll, punk, grunge, jazz, metal, cabaret and oriental melodies.
Founded in 2011, Pindoll complements Mikaelian’s vocals with the percussion of Jad Aouad and the guitars and bass of Miran Gurunian and Chris Reslan respectively. The group is known on the Beirut scene for riotous, cabaretlike live gigs, in which Mikaelian frequently makes use of a megaphone on stage – not unlike the early incarnation of a Beirut band called Mashrou’ Leila.
Pindoll’s profile was elevated in 2013 when they became the last-minute opener for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Beirut gig, after fans pressured Mashrou’ Leila – the scheduled opening act – to pull out to protest RHCP’s impending Tel Aviv gig.
The band’s previously recorded tracks included covers of Ed Cobb’s “Tainted Love” and U.S. torch song “Cry Me a River.” Pindoll’s jazzy interpretations of the tracks are reminiscent of French group Nouvelle Vague’s covers of post-punk hits such as The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” and The Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to F--k” – reproduced by breathy young women, some of whom had never heard the originals.
In “Twisted Times,” the Pindoll crew demonstrates that it is just as comfortable coming up with its own material as covering classics. The nine-track album was written and arranged by the four band members and recorded and mixed by Philip Tohme at Beirut Studios.
From the opening track, “Absence,” the group demonstrates its versatility. A subdued intro with a dreamy guitar melody and the high-pitched chimes of a glockenspiel switches gears midway through – becoming a fast-paced number, redolent of ska and made for pogo-ing dancers – before reverting to heartfelt lullaby.
“I think you should go, I need your absence,” Mikaelian sings, her voice playful, seductive. “It makes me feel so strangely down.”
Like most of the songs on “Twisted Times,” the lyrics grapple with a failing relationship, exploring feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, resentment and lingering attachment. The depressing content of the song is intriguingly at odds with the upbeat sound and circus-music melody.
Throughout the album, Mikaelian’s husky vocals emanate childlike innocence, heavily aspirated sex appeal and heartfelt passion with equal ease.
She sings exclusively in English, her voice occasionally infused with a slight accent, which helps lend the group an individual sound.
The album’s most distinctive track may be “Where Dreams Are.” The song’s rock’n’roll framework is overlaid with a Middle Eastern-sounding melody and interspersed with bursts of oriental percussion. The surprisingly effective blend of Eastern and Western scales lends the album a recognizably Arab identity absent from the rest of the tracks.
The penultimate song, “The Hidden Silence,” also stands out. A slower number than most on “Twisted Times” with a trip-hop feel, it may remind listeners of the synth-heavy music of Goldfrapp or Portishead (or, for that matter, Soap Kills), but the guitar solos near the end are closer to the heavy rock sound of British band Muse.
“Keep Walking,” the new album’s first single, is more representative of the band’s overall sound. “Keep walking. Ain’t gonna stay no more. Keep talking. Ain’t gonna say no more,” sings Mikaelian – for once sounding genuinely perturbed. A cheerful walking bass line underpins the jazzy chorus, interspersed with Gurunian’s choppy guitar solos. It’s a catchy number, more poppy than most, which is likely to get stuck in listeners’ heads.
Those who prefer the electric atmosphere and sweat-drenched dance floor of a live rock concert may find listening to the album at home gives them a hankering to see the real thing. Flamboyant and theatrical, Pindoll’s songs are made to be played live.
That doesn’t mean the recorded version is lacking in appeal.
“Will you come away with me?” Mikaelian sighs on the title track. Give it a go. Whether you like it or not, a journey with Pindoll is bound to take you somewhere unexpected.
Pindoll will launch “Twisted Times” with a live concert at the Plub Building in Downtown Beirut Saturday. For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/pindoll.