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Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, 'Psychology'
RATING: ** 1/2 out of 4
It's common for a funk-jam band to accumulate a following -- or a "flock," as the Baltimore quartet Pigeons Playing Ping Pong lovingly refers to their fanbase -- through live shows. The audience is typically there to appreciate the showy musicianship, follow improvised whims and generally soak up the vibes.
Pigeons, which began nearly eight years ago in a University of Maryland dorm room, took two years to record their second album, "Psychology" (released last Thursday), because the band was busy winning over crowds via a grassroots campaign. (It worked: Pigeons have more than 12,000 fans on Facebook, and played nearly 200 shows last year. Their current schedule shows no signs of slowing down.)
Now comes the hard part for any jam band: capturing the live essence to tape. The band's first attempt, 2010's "Funk EP," was effective but admittedly thrown together quickly (singer Greg Ormont said recently it was recorded in one night). Knowing that their star had risen considerably in a short time (the band headlined 9:30 Club last week), Pigeons were determined to give fans a more refined collection.
Of course, a listener's enjoyment of "Psychology" will depend heavily on his or her penchant for prolonged jam sessions. Pigeons clearly know their audience; why else would they stretch (sometimes unnecessarily so) four-minute songs into six or seven minute pieces? When it works -- say on the album's nearly 10-minute centerpiece "Horizon" or toward the exuberant end of "Time to Ride" -- the group shows its ability to crescendo in charged harmony.
There are moments of overextension, though, which cause the more-relaxed sections to veer into Muzak territory. Members of the flock will argue the ebb and flow of Pigeons' music is essential to the composition, since energized peaks are dull without calm valleys. That's fair and easier to swallow because the music here is often technically impressive.
So perhaps "Psychology" falls a bit flat because of the lyrics. Ode-to-funk opener "F.U." (which includes the Hornitz, a duo of horns from Boston who enliven the track and are missed later) believes it's more clever than it actually is. "Sunny Day," with its cheesy heavy echo effect on the vocals, whines about "how my smiles can turn into frowns." It comes across as empty rhetoric. It's telling the most exciting song here, the danceable disco update "Schwanthem," lacks lyrics all together. It's also the shortest. -- Wesley Case