"Post-rock" arguably stands as the most infuriating genre tag for musicians and the most convenient for music journalists. So far removed from Mojo magazine supremo Simon Reynolds' original definition as rock that focuses on timbre and texture above all else, post-rock eventually served to classify bands that were deemed unclassifiable, from Labradford to Gastr del Sol to The Sea and Cake. "We play our own kind of music!" the musicians cried, and the critics just laughed and reminded them that they had an article deadline looming.
Adam Pierce found himself in such a pickle when his material under the pseudonym Mice Parade ("Adam Pierce" rearranged, in case you were wondering) confounded the critical cognoscenti; they knew it was pretty, slightly exotic and entirely unsullied by muscular rock riffs, but by God they didn't know what to call it. And when he dropped the 12-minute instrumental improvisation "Mystery Brethren" with Doug Scharin (who already had his finger in several post-rock pies), into the grab bag he went.
From the first galloping rhythms of its opener, "Sneaky Red," Mice Parade sounds like a conscious effort on Pierce's part to shake off that pesky genre signifier once and for all. While his penultimate Bem-Vinda Vontade occasionally dipped its toes in pop waters amid Pierce's usual improvisational swirl, Mice Parade is a pop album, lock, stock and barrel. "Sneaky Red" turns out to be a full-on rocker like no Mice Parade song has ever been, with Pierce using his rapid guitar strumming not to establish an ambient flutter but to drive his narcotically catchy melody straight into the ground. Following quickly on its heels, the joyous, aerated ditty "The Last Ten Homes" shows Pierce leaving his trademark layered production by the wayside to highlight the tune itself, ending with an elliptical Animal Collective-inspired self-harmonization. I'd venture to say that no one who heard the formless sound pieces at the beginning of his career could have predicted that he would take a turn for the unabashedly pop the way he does here, or that he would be so surprisingly, refreshingly wonderful at it.
Pierce is still ostensibly aware that his instruments' timbral quality matters, but this time he welds them into song structures that matter just as much. His guitar possesses a deep, rich quality like molten sugar, similar to that of the Swirlies (of which Pierce is a former member), and over-mic'ed drums, copious electronics, xylophones, vibraphones, and even a Chinese harp all make appearances. In other words, Mice Parade is just as much of a showcase for sound as all of Pierce's solo work has been. It's nice, however, to hear the instruments serving a purpose and lending themselves to the songs rather than the other way around, especially since Pierce's hyperactive playing style changes little within and between records.
Furthermore--if only in terms of their sonic attributes--the collaborations ring truer than they have in the past. The smooth lounge-singing of Stereolab's Laetetia Sadier makes a much better match for Pierce's warm guitar work than Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir's ghastly childlike coo, but at least she's given the most twee and disposable song ("Double Dolphins on a Dime") to ruin. Even Pierce's own voice--which has received its fair share of criticism for its limited range and its vaguely stoned slackness--succeeds within Mice Parade's context, as his throaty tenor and the adventurous instrumentation work as foils and scale heretofore-unseen heights in tandem.
At nine songs in 35 minutes, Mice Parade is on the brief side, especially since "Satchelaise," as good as it is, is just a slightly reworked version of a Bem-Vinda Vontade b-side that already appeared on the Nights Wave EP in 2005. But just as a song like "Circle None"--a interlocking Don Caballero guitar pattern that fades out just as it heats up--is sadistically short, "Swing" knows its role as a quasi-interlude and wisely doesn't stick around for long. And if Mice Parade leaves the listener wanting, it also reveals a strong sense of determination and astoundingly few wasted notes. I'm actually a little surprised that Pierce pulled this venture off with such flying colors, considering that his six-album output thus far has remained frighteningly consistent to the point of limp predictability. Let it be known, though, that this is the record that nudges Mice Parade from merely good to pretty great, and the one that will keep me coming back for more.