Though it wasn’t his first release, last year’s Suburban Tours was certainly Joe Knight’s breakthrough. Over the course of that album’s eleven tracks, Knight managed to refashion the free-form, guitar-driven psychedelia of his earliest cassettes in a more accessible pop context; the result was a lo-fi work with deeper aspirations that sought to encapsulate the cozy ennui of contemporary suburbia.
His latest release is just as broad in scope as you’d imagine from a double-LP called Pan Am Stories. Rangers is no longer concerned with the banal familiarity of home; no, he wants to see the world. Even the cover art speaks to this move towards the exotic; whereas Suburban Tours featured a deserted parking lot on a cloudy day, Pan Am Stories shows a collage of colorful illustrations and photographs that backs the centerpiece image of an airplane mid-flight, on top of a romantic sunset. Also, his moniker is spelled “Rangerzs” this time around, typed in a chalky, unsteady font. Looking at the cover, it’s clear that we’ve moved out of our mothers’ minivans; the destination may be unknown, but there’s clearly significance in the journey.
As if this shift in focus weren’t clear enough, Knight even imbues his song titles with a sense of traveling globalism. Suburban Tours, as you might imagine, featured songs that reflected the names of those soulless, preplanned developments that have become increasingly prevalent in American suburbia: Deerfield Village, Woodland Hills, Brook Meadows, Ross Downs. We also got tracks called “Out Past Curfew,” “Bel Air” (built upon a sample of dialogue from the titular TV show), and most presciently, the closing track “Airport Lights.” Pan Am Stories comprises tracks titled with worldlier connotations: “Sacred Cows,” “Luncheon Ghana,” “Khyber Pass,” “Podunk Baal,” “Conversations on the Jet Stream.”
Musically, Pan Am Stories hearkens back to Knight’s 2009 output, especially the Low Cut Fades cassette. This is surprising and perhaps a bit disappointing upon first listen; after all, if this album is supposed to herald Rangers’ expanded worldview, shouldn’t the music reflect that? We hear an airplane take off on both “Zeke’s Dream” and “Bronze Casket,” but are we really flying anywhere new?
To be fair, Knight has explored internationalism before; one of his 2009 cassettes is entitled “Volvo Jungle Mist / Concorde Breakfast,” while another one of his cassettes featured a side called “Europe on TV.” But while the latter track made its music-abroad associations explicit with exact replication of the words of some foreign-language broadcaster, on Pan Am Stories Knight uses his music to evoke this globalism instead of simply spelling it out for us.
‘Zeke’s Dream” is positively sprawling; at over thirteen minutes, it has ample room to explore different moods and inflections. Knight’s electric guitar is as warped as it’s ever been, but it goes from static-drenched to staccato, almost mandolin-like eloquence to slow, syrupy, jam-band airiness. There’s no single unifying hook like there was on, say, “Deerfield Village,” but again, this isn’t an album about the familiar: it’s an album about the unknown and the ways we pursue it. And Pan Am Stories certainly takes its time exploring; it’s twice the length of Suburban Tours. His sturdy, reliable basslines ground soaring guitar leads on songs like “Jane’s Well,” though like any good vacation, the track soon wanders off on an unexpected direction — delicate electric piano, to be exact—before closing with a tiny bass solo that rises above swelling, gentle guitar chords.
On the following track, “Zombies (Night),” he sings, “It feels good to be alive when you’ve got fine friends on your side” to a melody that reminds me of the grungy singsong of Hole’s “Awful.” The song, like the album as a whole, unfurls rather than appears; it uses repeating phrases, but not in the typical Western verse-chorus-verse fashion. Distant drums are overshadowed by tribal shakers, another theme we see repeated over several tracks on Pan Am Stories.
There are times I wish Rangers would do a little more exploring. For instance, “Luncheon Ghana” doesn’t reckon with its provocatively paradoxical title, though its bookending analog synth is a welcome surprise. And the constantly swirling electric guitars tend to get a little samey-sounding by the album’s second half; I’d like to have heard more tracks like “Podunk Baal,” which messes with its own slow-dancing rhythm and feel by way of intriguing noise-rock guitar work.
Indeed, Pan Am Stories probably could have been a couple songs shorter without detriment. Still, here’s an album that’s lo-fi only by necessity, as opposed to by design; its sights are set upon an unending horizon from high above the clouds. If you’ve enjoyed this dude’s earlier stuff — especially his 2009 cassettes—then you’ll find plenty to like here. Regardless of the newness of this terrain, that Knight sees fit to explore it at all is the sign of a artist ready and willing to grow, and for that he deserves praise. Plus, according to the mad sonic scientists over at the Not Not Fun laboratories, Knight played and recorded every instrument you hear over the course of this double-album’s 80-minute running time. The fact that this doesn’t sound like a solo project at all is a testament to the success of its expansive vision.