Canadian songwriter Stephen McBean has been a busy guy over the last few years. Between his work as Pink Mountaintops and with his psych-rock band, Black Mountain, McBean has released four albums in less than five years, which is prolific by anyone's standards, except maybe the members of Wolf Parade (perhaps it's a Canadian thing). Last year's Black Mountain record, In the Future, was quite good, and McBean no doubt hopes to continue his successes with the new Pink Mountaintops' album, Outside Love. Fortunately, for him and for us, he indeed provides another excellent collection of tunes which combine fuzzy, psychedelic rock 'n' roll with hints of folk and pop music in a generally low-key, yet riveting 42 minutes.
It's difficult to describe exactly what makes McBean's music so compelling, but something about his bluesy, stoner-rock songwriting style allows the songs to work their way under your skin while the subtle layers of guitars bring additional emotional intensity. Take the first single, "Vampire," in which he muses darkly about love as a blood-sucker over slowly strummed acoustic guitar and beautiful string arrangements. It’s a bit campy, but it also feels remarkably sincere and you get the sense that McBean means every ridiculous line. As he sings the refrain "creatures in flight, let's be creatures of the night" you're likely to get goose-bumps on your arms and a grin on your face at the same time. Throughout the first half of the record, the songs are uniformly great, especially the eerily sexy "While We Were Dreaming," featuring Ashley Webber on vocals, and my personal favorite, the gritty, triumphant rock ballad "Holiday."
Though few songs on the album get very loud, the second half of the record is especially mellow, centering around 12 minutes of slow-burning rock ‘n’ roll made up by the hazy, melancholy title track and the slightly countrified “And I Thank You.” You may feel a bit drowsy by the end of “Closer to Heaven,” but McBean and company create some of their most striking moments among the gentler, more thoughtful material, and they do break things up with the penultimate tune, “The Gayest of Sunbeams,” a fiery, fuzzed-out slice of psychedelia that is a most welcome diversion. In fact, despite a somewhat lumbering beginning with “Axis: Throne of Love,” Outside Love is a consistently great effort, featuring strong songwriting, excellent musicianship, and some well-placed guest spots that add depth and variety to the record.
Fittingly, however, it’s McBean that shines brightest on each track, conjuring the spirit of classic rock but never sounding derivative or uninspired. Though his love of the dramatic is evident in some of his more over-the-top lyrics, McBean shows a remarkable amount of restraint on Outside Love, giving the grander, more epic moments the ability to make the desired impact and creating space enough for his emotionally-charged narratives to hit home. While it isn’t a musical revelation by any stretch of the imagination, Outside Love is a solid rock ‘n’ roll record with heart and soul to spare.
Last Word: Pink Mountaintops have crafted a genuine and compelling album that easily ranks among McBean’s best material with either of his mountain-themed bands.