Before such a thing was facilitated by digital files, Pell Mell wrote songs by sending ideas on cassettes to members via snail mail. Once everyone in the scattered group—Robert Beerman (drums, guitar), Bill Owen (guitar), Steve Fisk (keyboards), Greg Freeman (bass, guitar), David Spalding (guitars) for Flow—had contributed to the track, they convened to finish it in a studio; in Flow‘s case Lowdown in San Francisco. Not that you need to know this method to appreciate Pell Mell’s sonic sorcery, but it does increase one’s admiration for the final product.
While their major-label debut, Interstate, is Pell Mell’s best-known full-length, Flow is their peak. There’s something poker-faced and quietly intense about Pell Mell’s music, even when they’re in swaggering, heroic, quasi-surf-rock mode, as on album-opener “American Eagle.” Sounding a bit like Contortions spin-off group the Raybeats, the song is a fitting tribute to the regal bird—or the clothing company, as the case may be. “Breach Of Promise” downshifts into a pensive brooder, revealing guitar tones of deep warmth and expressiveness, the melody so moving yet so minimal. “Bring On The China” boasts a chunky chugger, suggestive of industriousness and purposeful motion while “The Devil Bush” purveys wickedly torqued surf-rock, again evoking the Raybeats.
“Smoke” is Flow‘s highlight, featuring the most psychedelic guitar tones, the most resonant bass line, the most sublime chord progressions, and the most dramatic dynamics. I don’t say this lightly: It’s one of the greatest songs of the ’90s… or maybe ever. Pretty bizarre that it’s never been licensed for a film. It’s followed by the LP’s second-most exciting track, “Aero.” This is ultimate driving music, a West Coast American motorik road-burner with crashing metallic percussion accents. “Flood” is the funkiest track here, flaunting an almost Madchester/baggy rhythm with crystalline guitar interplay, subtly menacing atmospheres, and a Tuvan throat singing sample.
Things become a bit less thrilling toward the end of Flow, but “Little Blue Dance” is a poignant meditation recalling some of Tom Verlaine’s solo work from the ’80s and ’90s while the valedictorian “Mopping Up” closes the record with a tune that oozes gorgeous resignation.
Because Flow came out on SST, its chances of getting reissued legitimately are slim, due to label boss Greg Ginn having some weird kink that involves not wanting to make money or please fans of great music. Let’s hope that one day Pell Mell can find the legal wherewithal to wrest their music from Ginn’s obstinate hands. -Buckley Mayfield