Panda Park is the highly anticipated third full-length release by Chicago's 90 Day Men. Destined to appear on most "Best Of" lists for 2004, the band has created an album that crystallizes their growth as artists, maturity as composers, and mastery of the infinite possibilities of sound. This quest for the previously unheard is the driving force behind Panda Park. It matters little whether this park is an actual place or a state of mind; it's the journey into the heart of a dysfunctional utopia that raises the standard for adventurous and exploratory rock music. Quite simply, 90 Day Men are creating music that nods to the past, steals from the future, and sounds like nothing else.
The seven songs that constitute Panda Park take the listener on a dizzying whirl through the past darkly. Most of the songs are built around Andy Lansangan's army of pianos, organs, keyboards, and acid-soaked vintage synths. Brian Case's guitar and Robert Lowe's bass climb like weeds and burrow deep into the earth's core, seemingly at the same time. Drummer Cayce Key's job is to provide a rhythmic latticework for all these far flung sounds to adhere. His spartan yet spacious patterns successfully tether the entire composition. Every note seems plucked from the ether with great delicacy. Dense arrangements that many bands would easily muddle and over-do, the Men meticulously fashion together. With all forces pulling in the same direction, Panda Park is an intoxicating hybrid of Slint's emotional claustrophobia and the grandly flamboyant cabaret of David Bowie's Low and other Berlin-period albums. That description is merely a weak attempt to contextualize what 90 Day Men are doing. The twirling twists of circular keyboard lines conjure images of mid-'70s strobe lit art rock (hello Rick Wakeman!). The expressive vocal work of Andy and Rob soar high above the mix and add another layer of drama to the Panda Park saga. Brian Case takes a more restrained approach to singing, sounding like a young Brian Eno. Even when a song describes a scenario unfolding underwater, the listener is catapulted through the deepest depths of outer space.
It's a quietly grand album full of surprises and hidden corridors. John Congleton (of the Paper Chase) engineered and produced the recording sessions, assisted by Greg Norman and Tim Iseler. Panda Park was recorded during the course of a springtime week in May 2003. Sessions were completed at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studios and John McEntire's Soma Studios in Chicago. Congleton's production is fantastic in the truest definition of the word. His ability to arrange all the myriad sounds allows Panda Park to sound like an alternate universe of sonic photo-fantasies.