Pretendo. My dad used to joke and call my classic NES that and I thought he was dorky for it at seven or eight-years-old. With the Nintendo-referencing band name, the ][ signaling this as their second album while also being an Atari reference (the album’s closer: “Pong”), and the fact that their drummer was in Mono Puff (John Flansburg’s long-dormant They Might Be Giants side project), I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you’re in for some geek rock. Perhaps with theremins and covers of the Tetris theme. But then you’d be wrong.
This NYC trio has a split personality. The first and more dominant personality is the angular, sometimes dancey but always upbeat one. Obviously Gang of Four disciples but sounding more like Fugazi or Hot Snakes, Pretendo deliver a great first impression with “Chronically a Free Subletting” which relentlessly drives with guitars that rarely chord, opting for jaunty rhythms and interweaving lines, and vocals by bassist John Castro who does a shout/sing thing with a two or three-note spare melody.
“Angsti Nervosa” gets the Gang out with some funky chords and Talking Heads-style jittery rhythms. “Cynthia” is aping Fugazi in its doubling of the vocals with guitar on "I wanna wanna wanna Cynthia" in the nice chorus, though the verses there are rather uneventful. “My Architect” is so Hot Snakes it’s not even funny, while giving drum breaks so Stephen Calhoon can show off his near-Bozzio arsenal of cymbals and different bells. He later shows of his reggae/ska chops and later his hihat speed on “Avoid the Commercials.” Guy’s got skills. “Smoking Pipe to Dance” has angular synth and guitar lines but maintains solid melodies, reminding me of No Knife.
The other personality is harder to define but perhaps more intriguing, though also more hit-or-miss. They slow down to a walking tempo on tracks like “Lee” and get more melodic; however, that one’s a little boring. “Mandy, I Mean, Mindy” has some good ideas with a simplistic approach but still managing to throw in a bridge riff with a surprisingly smooth 3½/4 (or 7/8 I suppose) measure on the loop, giving a hint of the Dismemberment Plan. It’s too bad the lyrics are a waste of space, just taking names and messing with ‘em. (“Glory, I mean Gloria,” etc.) These are just two examples sung by guitarist Devon E. Levins, whose nasal Samson-esque singing stands in contrast to Castro’s shouts, giving the album a nice natural variety. Later, “Pong” successfully creeps me out at the spoken word part in the middle -- not sure which guy is responsible for that stalker-whispering. Kinda sours the end of the album.
][ is a well-crafted and recorded album, be sure of that. There are a lot parts that really grab me, but with so many other bands coming to mind it reminds me that a lot of this has been done before. However, the eclectic batch of songs and alternating lead vocalists keep things interesting and the band has enough of their own tricks and skill to make this worth a listen. Just ignore the name.