Score: 8 / 10
Picturebox make “melodic music from the cathedral city of Canterbury” and they claim to sing songs about “hedgehogs, football, French pop, US pop, tea parties, careers advice & academic problems.” They also put out a wonderfully lofi album back in May, which, belatedly, we’re reviewing for you now.
Picturebox is a loose collective that revolves around the many voices of Robert Halcrow. When wearing his Picturebox hat, Halcrow draws on a diverse range of musical reference points and crafts near-classic pop music. Influences pop up across Home Taping that point to punk, electronica, alt-folk, and Brit-pop genres, and Halcrow pulls them all together with authenticity. And he does it very well.
Home Taping was a complete DIY undertaking, with Halcrow recording most of the newest Picturebox album at home. He is a meticulous craftsman- and the production is both tight and expansive, when called for, and loose and rough when appropriate. Home Taping is another great example of how far DIY has evolved beyond lo-fi status. Of equal, or greater, importance is Halcrow’s songwriting. He has an active lyrical imagination and you can tell he is very happy at his work. There are no dark underlying themes or metaphors about the current state of humanity. This is pure pop music without pretense.
The Picturebox sound is very guitar and keyboard influenced- without the overreach of any heroics. The best part of Home Taping music is the final result- the sum of all the parts. The composition, arrangement, lyrics, performance, and engineering- come together beautifully. As mentioned, Halcrow seems hell-bent in not anchoring Picturebox to one particular genre. It took many repeated listens for me to discover this simple fact. I kept trying to weave the threads together to distill the Picturebox “sound”- but kept coming up short. For some people this might be a great thing- to avoid being slotted. For others it might seem inconsistent or lacking a distinctive voice. For Robert Halcrow- it’s just another day at the Picturebox factory- making pop and having fun doing it and leaving others to worry about applying the labels.
The range of influences, or similarities to other artists, in the songs that comprise Home Taping include Snippet (Donna’s Done a Runner), Robyn Hitchcock (Desperate Dan), Juliana Hatfield (Juliana Hatfield One and Two), Pulco (Day Travel Card), and Stephen Steinbrink (Girls). There is single cover version on Home Taping of Monkey Running by Pulco. If any of these appeal to you- Home Taping will be a very rewarding listen. In parallel, Home Taping provides a valuable lesson for DIY musicians on how to shape a vision into a collection of well-constructed pop songs- and bring them to reality.
Curiously enough- there are two songs called Juliana Hatfield on Home Taping. The two versions provide good examples of Halcrow’s creative mind, musicianship, and engineering skills. Juliana Hatfield One is guitar heavy, and the vocals are slightly distorted- like the mid-1990s indie sound of Dinosaur Jr or, just maybe Juliana Hatfield. The second version goes heavier on the keyboards, a 21st century upgrade- it is clean, crisp, and sparkly. Combined, both versions showcase Halcrow’s musical talent and range. Given his refusal to lock into a singular sound or category keeps Home Taping sounding fresh. What you get in the first song (Legion) does not lead in a straight line to the closer, On My Horse (which was one of my personal favorites).
My first exposure to Picturebox came via Modular Pursuits: 15 Pulco Songs Covered by Various Artists. Halcrow’s contribution was a version of the song Paddle People. The song caught my attention because it so cleverly tracked like a mod French girl group, when in reality, it was Robert Halcrow with his laptop and keyboard, accompanied by a drummer. The female voice speak-singing in French was authentic- but had been recorded simply by having someone read the lyrics into a phone. Halcrow brilliantly wove the vocal into the song- and created a near perfect pop song in the process. The attention to detail in both the performance and engineering is a Picturebox trademark and on Home Taping both are top notch. Picturebox can be slick, glittery, and goofy (On My Horse) or as rough a dirt road (Desperate Dan and I Stamp on Bee), and Halcrow gets the essential sonic elements of each song right every time.
Home Taping is a fresh, and refreshing example of the current state of DIY production and values: The best pop songs always begin with a great imagination, but require skill and determination to bring them into the light of day- or into your headphones.