Winners Never Quit

Band: Pedro the Lion
Album: Winners Never Quit
Best song: “Bad Things to Such Good People” is great.
Worst song: “To Protect the Family Name” is too long.

One of the things the Internet has spawned (along with a curious amount of ytmnd sites) is the more specific niches within music genres. “Indie rock” now has little to no meaning — though, I’d be curious to see if it ever did — spanning acts as similar as Pavement and Mogwai, label mates on Matador.

With that said, Pedro the Lion occupies a genre largely vacant before the emo scene exploded sometime in the early 2000s. In my reading (and, admittedly, I know nothing about this stuff), before David Bazan began recording under the PTL name, Christian music was the domain of African-American gospel singers, dc talk and the strikingly beautiful (even still, at 38) Amy Grant. The only outlet for the young, sensitive Christian was to venture to church on the hopes that a Megachurch has a band perform that day, and even then, the young sensitive Christian would have to deal with the chubby ladies with overdone fingernails and bad Nancy Reagan hair. Also, maybe that youth pastor who was a little too friendly.

Enter Pedro the Lion.

PTL’s first full-length record, 1998’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend, is something of a breakthrough in that it captures a wonderful combination of confessional indie rock with a conversational delivery rivaled only by Elliott Smith. The album ender, “Promise,” is a sweet recitation of faith despite overwhelming pangs of doubt and fear.

After another amazing EP (The Only Reason I Feel Secure, which included Bazan’s version of “Be Thou My Vision”), Bazan recorded and released Winners Never Quit in 2000. A concept album, the record follows a fable of a man looking to be good in the face of a corrupt career, a difficult relationship and a frustrating family. The record is nothing if not dark, with the protagonist failing at every turn, cheating those around him, killing and eventually begging for his soul.

Indeed, the the album’s artwork is nothing short of stark, with black and white line drawings of a briefcase being handed over and a man with a gun pointed at his temple.

The album, though, is striking and amazing. Pitchfork hated it, and, on some level, it’s understandable. Quite simply, the album is beautiful, but incredibly heavy-handed lyrically.

Unlike later PTL efforts, Winners Never Quit emphasizes Bazan’s best qualities: His whisper-sweet voice, his easy Modest-Mouse-on-Quaaludes guitar lines, his earnest delivery. The opener, a scene-setter detailing the protagonist’s moral compass — he steals his brother’s lunch and hopes Jesus will forgive him for it — is stark and creepy. The more amped-up “Simple Economics” is full of similarly strange platitudes, but satiric of the classic political canards.

The album’s highlights show a dichotomy difficult to master on a record like Winners Never Quit. The two-song couplet “A Mind of Her Own” and “Never Leave a Job Half Done” tell a story of a deranged, power-hungry narrator (and accomplice) arguing, killing and eventually hiding the body of his victim. Told in striking deadpan, “A Mind of Her Own” inverts the Pixies’ quietLOUDquiet, only to press the pedal to the floor as the song flows into its epic climax. As Bazan intones “You put down that telephone, you’re not calling anyone” over and over, the song moves into a more rhythmic, serious “Never Leave a Job Half Done.” The second song in the duo, the win-at-all-cost world of politics is shown as disgusting and dirty. Cynical as ever, the “quitters never win” axiom takes on a disturbing meaning in the song.

Of course, lo-fi is what PTL does best and Winners Never Quit‘s other grand moment is a confessional beauty. Speaking about his father’s disappointment in him, the narrator takes a tragic look at his own faith and — in his eyes — Christ’s reaction. Backed by a uptempo guitar line, Bazan’s lyrics resonate with an urgency left for overwrought network dramas and Paul Thomas Anderson films.

“Bad Things to Such Good People” is, no question, one of Bazan’s best lo fi offerings and his best ambiguous religious tomes.

The criticisms of Winners Never Quit are, undoubtedly, valid. The record is overly dramatic. It’s certainly darker than a person of supposedly strong faith should put forth (for the record, Bazan has since, basically, renounced his faith). I find his anti-political-system nonsense to be just that. It’s easy to complain about politics by simply yelling “Everyone is a crook.” That solves nothing.

But, still. The record takes the energy of a 15-year-old, Che-shirt-wearing teenager and actually channels it into something other than a Rage Against the Machine record and shows a pop sensibility often overlooked in lo fi indie rock.

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  • By Control | Albums That I Own on July 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

    […] with my late best friend about the quality of Pedro the Lion’s Control against the quality of Winners Never Quit. Critics always sided with him, but I never found the album’s storyline to be as interesting, […]

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