On Pander, Telyscopes Remain Audacious and Unsentimental

To put it mildly, few artists are as ruthlessly unsentimental about their past work as Jack Hubbell, the creative dynamo behind Philadelphia indie rock project Telyscopes. As he sang on the standalone single “Be Nimble” earlier this year, he’d “rather drink bleach” than rehash the lo-fi period that produced 3×3 (Little Square Boxes), one of his most enduring records among fans. And, to be fair, look how far he’s come in the four years since then. Consider the much more dialed-in rendition of “Tsar Bomba” the band played as a Tiny Desk submission this year, or their dark, esoteric, and ironically-titled EP Pander, out as of this week.

It’s not a project devoted fully to pandering on the one hand or self-indulgence on the other, though. If anything, it’s listener-agnostic. Pander opens with “The Devil (XV),” and it’s a plea to look–then run–the other way, so when it screeches to a halt and then into a harsh, distorted loop, you can’t say Hubbell didn’t warn you. Even with its surreal tempo shifts, it’s the EP’s most understated track, built on contemplative electric guitar by Scott Stevenson and Vincent “Crawfish” Sterling. Under a subtly sticky, semi-sad melody, it carries the first taste of the project’s sinister undertones.

Hubbell has long dabbled in synths and sampled drums, and he’s recently made his tracks accessible for remixes, but “Anaphylactic Shock” takes the plunge into electronica–devilishly danceable with its techno beat and funk guitar breaks. Additional production by producer Dave Gravagno–aka Shady Monk–takes it up a notch, building a tense, foreboding cloud around an honest-to-god club banger, albeit one that concerns “felonies inconceivably evil”–if they happened at all.

That may be a departure from more typical Telyscopes sounds, but it doesn’t approach the apex of the album’s anti-pandering, which is “Medley: Group Prayer / Sonata Del 1422 / Look Me in the Eye / Please Clap.” Launching out of a pitch-shifted, vaguely sarcastic reading of The Lord’s Prayer, it smash-cuts through passages of spoken word and angular instrumental, culminating in a gleefully unhinged monologue from bassist Michael Horvath and a bright, rocking outro.

Hubbell is an avowed fan of avant-garde greats like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, and here he makes one of his most direct and audacious homages. It’s not for everyone, and that’s by design; whether it works for you will depend on whether you can laugh at the arrangement’s more gratuitous elements, like the bike horn and glockenspiel, and whether you can situate yourself in the unselfconscious in-the-moment-ness of it all.

Throughout Pander, his lyrics blend religious, historical, and political imagery, often in more opaque configurations than usual. Back on Perfume, bringing up Princess Diana to talk about mortality felt pretty straightforward. I’m less sure of why he puts himself in the shoes of Lee Harvey Oswald in “Frame By Frame,” the grim, gonzo closer (I sense an overarching theme of guilt, or the lack of it, but I’m still chewing it over). Still, there are rewardingly self-referential lines that die-hard fans will recognize, tying the puzzle back into the larger Telyscopes body of work.

Though Hubbell stays committed to sonic reinvention, there always seems to be another crumb in that trail of breadcrumbs. It’s a joy to pick up, and it may help you find your bearings in the sheer volume of the band’s output–including, by my count, six full-lengths, two EPs, and two remix collections in just the past five years. When the releases drop that fast, no one batch of songs feels truly definitive, but maybe that’s the point. It makes each one an equally strong place to start listening. Pander breaks other molds, but not that one.


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