By Matt Sullivan
Back in the day, a flight on Pan Am was the stuff of legends. You were in the company of kings and queens, floating in a gilded jet stream with international or even interstellar ambitions, but more importantly, you were part of an adventure. Now that commercial flight has become standard and the size of the world has shrunk conceptually, that spirit is threatened by extinction. Luckily, Joe Knight-- the San Francisco-via-Dallas multi-instrumentalist behind Rangers-- has risen to the task of resuscitating and immortalizing those long-lost feelings of exploration in the form of his first double LP, Pan Am Stories.
It's honestly surprising that a character as humble as Knight has assumed such lofty ambitions; just a year ago, he was taking listeners on intimate, night-time detours through American suburbia in the backseat of a hot-boxed car. With all of the acclaim his debut LP Suburban Tours received in the blogosphere as a set of abbreviated Hypnagogic vignettes, it was easy to forget about the expansive psychedelia of Rangers' early sound collages. Those were risky, epic, and at times unwieldy, but in Stories, Knight is in full control, confidently refiguring those sounds into arena-sized rock epics in glorious lo-fi. What makes the album's centerpiece, "Zeke's Dream," a huge leap forward from, say, Low Cut Fades, is not necessarily any difference in structure, but an attention to detail that makes the progression of its varied dream scenes feel almost scientific in nature, not simply experimental.
In fact, that's one of Stories' biggest feats: making prog-- occasionally a dirty, four-letter word for elitist or just plain boring-- into something poetic and accessible. "John Is The Last of a Dying Breed," for example, unfurls slowly, opening with a sweetly strummed guitar progression that's been given a Cocteau Twins sheen. Knight's nuanced, dynamic playing allows the guitar to glide over the prophetic repetitions of the bass before all is suspended and silenced. As we start to wonder what clouds are peaking over the horizon, the song returns as a perpetually growing, funky groove with a winding, lyrical guitar melody as its backbone. But it's not always about adding layers until a fateful climax; "Jane's Well" employs a circular form where, after a similarly dramatic build-and-drop, and a bath of flanged, tremolo-picked guitar goo, there's a recapitulation of the A-section with an enchanting, echoing chime melody. The whole experience evokes something one would expect to hear if Stephen Malkmus led Pink Floyd, fetishized Chic instead of The Fall, and invited Curt Kirkwood to tag along on tour. It's spacious, stylish freedom grounded by a keen ear for melody and guided by a subliminal narrative.
That narrative is part of what makes this a great road trip record, in the tradition of American Water. The main difference-- the main reason we're traveling in a Boeing for this trip, and not a Volvo-- is the prevalent sense of fantasy. The scenes and settings are realistic, but the accompanying feelings are beyond this world. This Pan Am legend, unlike the ones of yore, transcends social status. It's a tale of the intangible luxuries of experience and discovery that the photo album can help re-kindle, but can't quite re-capture.
Pan Am Stories is available now on Not Not Fun