Part Time is an assemblage of musicians from El Paso and San Francisco helmed by capricious vocalist David Speck. Distinguished by reliance on an old Casio keyboard’s faux-harpsichord setting, insistent drum machine, and Speck’s fickle delivery of unpredictable lines, Part Time’s previous two albums sought to craft smooth instrumentals tempered by Speck’s eccentric flare. Smooth, as if Part Time sought comparisons to Sade. Part Time’s appeal was the somewhat sexy, odd and always nostalgic atmosphere cultivated by seamless production, tone and minimal instrumentation.
Part Time’s latest, PDA contains tension between the album being a work of sounds, like earlier releases, and one of songs. It’s easy to review PDA’s sounds. Note the television samples and live drums on “Funny Moods,” point out the keyboard’s harshness on “Seashells” and “Night Drive,” declare that the keys and guitar congeal well on “Living in the USA,” and liken PDA to a child talking over cartoons in his bedroom as a warbling cassette of Sade’s Diamond Life drifts in the open window in 1985 – we’d have a conclusion. But, such treatment of PDA would gloss over its character as a transitional record – one where Part Time’s urge to explore other sounds of the 1980s, beyond keys and gated drum sounds, coincides with an effort to write better songs.
“Staring at a Gun,” “Night Drive” and “Seashells” originally appeared on Part Time’s 2012 Burger Records cassette tape Saturday Night and encapsulate the group’s old moves. All three float along at roughly the same tempo, the latter two rely breezy keyboard progressions with guitar flourishes and Speck’s breathy, processed coos. They’re practically soundtrack material organized around loose themes. A romantic pleasure cruise or a mysterious woman strolling the seashore at night – each scene cast in a retro filter by the chosen instrumental tones. They’re easily digested and impeccably smooth, but trite. The instruments aren’t wielded to develop melodic ideas so much as for their associative power that places the listener in a memory, real or imagined, from vintage VHS stills out of a narrative context in order to establish an era and mood.
For all of the Ariel Pink comparisons Part Time racks up, Pink is clearly the risk-taker. PDA’s most adventurous track, the waltzing “Funny Moods,” trips over itself as it endeavors to stand out with goofy vocals and cartoon samples and plummets beyond odd into the pit of baffling and gratuitous. The most interesting moments of production appear on “PDA,” where Speck’s studio manipulation is assertive enough to carry the track on its own aesthetic merit. With sounds engrossing enough, songs are secondary, but such instances are rare on PDA.
Album openers “I Want to Go” and “How Do I Move On” indicate Part Time’s progress. The album openers boast intricate guitar interplay reminiscent of Maurice Deebank’s work with Felt in the early 80s and “How Do I Move On” finds Speck reverently channeling Morrissey above the album’s other case of live drums. Despite the heavy-handed vocal reference, it’s an excellent song. Propelled by Speck’s nonlexical vocables and skillful guitar leads pirouetting around a gripping chord progression, the ambition of its writing and performance yields one of the best songs in Part Time’s catalog. Its production is certainly datable, but “How Do I Move On” indicates that Part Time’s songs can overshadow their sounds. “Living In the USA” features the album’s most memorable chorus as percolating synth gives way to an angular guitar lead. Not unlike Cars’ leader Ric Ocasek’s production of the second Suicide album and Alan Vega’s solo album Saturn Strip, “Living in the USA” demonstrates pristine 80s pop production that manages not to stifle menacing vocal performance.
Overall, PDA grooves and unravels like a smooth prom night. Even the least developed songs function as evocative atmospherics, but attentive listening reveals a band on the cusp of greater work. PDA’s tension between songs and sounds points to future releases where production and ostensible aesthetic decisions actually complement song-writing, rather than remain the focal point.