No need for a hook to open this review—Gregory Pepper and His Problems’ latest album, With Trumpets Flaring, has plenty to spare. The addicting hooks (and riffs, and melodies, and refrains…) are delivered in a well-crafted and wide-ranging collection of songs, put forth by this 26-year-old musician from Guelph, Ontario. The lyrics are at times honest, sardonic, absurd, self-loathing, nonsensical, ironic, and are very often some combination of those. Pepper’s pallet for his verbal meanderings explores every niche of pop, from full-fledged electro-pop to the sounds of a 1950s doo-wop band, complete with alto saxophone.
The album begins with a vaudeville accordion that suddenly gives way into an electronic backbeat that sounds akin to Chromeo, which then gives way into a more traditional, guitar-driven, indie-pop sound, which comes back fairly quickly to electro-pop. And that’s just the first song, “7ths and 3rds.” Although many of the songs are short—ten of the thirteen are under three minutes; the album itself is a mere half-hour—Pepper still manages to explore classic pop sounds such as the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, and Weezer, and some lesser-loved genres (he makes a mocking foray into rock opera), while still giving all his songs a personal touch, a touch that oscillates between, and sometimes combines, hopeless optimism and sardonic dismissal.
Much of this touch comes from his lyrical content and vocal style. On “Built A Boat” Pepper’s voice sounds unsure and mournful in a simple, sparsely instrumented song that richly describes building a fantastic boat, only to find out that it doesn’t float. He sounds charmingly off-key in the short romp that is “There Were Dinosaurs.” In the singable chorus of “Drop the Plot”—which repeats “Do, do what you want to / you already do”—he exudes a tone that also hints towards self-loathing, the latter of which becomes an explicit lyrical theme in the pop-rock opus “It Must Be True.” This song spans a range of dynamics and emotions, building to a nerdy-angsty climax like the kind Weezer excelled at on their debut album. “One Man Show” best displays his vocal timbre and lyrical tone, which when averaged out over the album become something that is at the same time melancholic, optimistic, trenchant, relatable, and absurd.
The vocal themes tend towards either the macabre or the absurd, with witticisms in both. “If You Try” is a full-fledged 50s doo-wop song over which Pepper croons about various methods of suicide: “Jumping from a building / what a scary way to die. / Starving in the desert / what a boring way to die. // But it’s all called suicide if you try.” Part of the chorus in “I Was A John” has the protagonist expecting pasta to come out of his addressee’s fax machine. This same protagonist earlier declares, “I was psychotic and working in a woodshop / I built the stairway to heaven.”
To focus only on his lyrical wit and vocal delivery would be to ignore his deft ability to create catchy pop hooks over a wide range of styles. In fact, nearly every song on the album sounds different from the others. Some, like “Built a Boat” and “Outro” are intimate in their instrumental nakedness. Other pieces showcase Pepper’s ability to build pop-rock songs that span genres, have musical depth and still avoid feeling forced and overloaded. Pepper takes advantage of a diverse array of sounds, utilizing, among others, glockenspiel, electric drum sequencing, synthesizers, acoustic guitars, organ, handclaps, shakers, and multiple layers of vocal harmonies. His style spans pop-rock, electro-pop, nerd-rock, and indie-pop, and he fits it all together in the tremendous and delightful mess that is With Trumpets Flaring. As I find myself humming his songs more and more often, I realize that Gregory Pepper and His Problems might be the best pop surprise I have had in a long time. –Max Thorn