“Even Though,” the first song from the New Haven-based Pigeon English’s EP Coo!, starts with a sunny guitar chord, an easy, lazy swing. But the main attraction comes a breath later, in the form of two voices in close harmony. “Time stops when you walk in,” they sing together. “My whole world begins again.” On the second syllable of begins, the chord delivers a small surprise that grabs the ear and tugs at the heart.
Something’s wrong. And sure enough, it’s in the lyrics: “But nothing changes for you, even though.”
The music resolves. The drama in the song is just starting.
Pigeon English is the project of musicians Brian Larney (of Lines West) and Rob Nelson (of Elegant Primates). Larney and Nelson were friends in high school and wrote, sang, and played music together, then parted ways. They reconnected last year at Cafe Nine during its annual celebration of Elvis’s birthday; they sang “Love Me Tender” and found that they still harmonized well. They decided to embark on a songwriting project to investigate that fact.
A year later, Coo! is the result. Nelson plays upright bass and sings low harmonies. Larney plays guitar, piano and drums and sings the high harmonies.
And such harmonies they are. Larney and Nelson list the Everly Brothers and the Beatles among their influences, and both are in evidence — but more than that, too. In the blending of their voices, and particularly some of the swooping phrasing they use, Larney and Nelson in some ways hearken back to the brother acts that preceded the Everly Brothers, like the Monroe Brothers or even the Delmore Brothers. But in the structures of their songs, Larney and Nelson wear their love for the Beatles on their sleeves. They’ve clearly been good students, as melodies, chords, and lyrics consistently make clever turns that feel both unexpected, satisfying — and emotionally complicated.
The sunniness of “Even Though” is darkened by the lyrics, as the narrator pines for a romantic interest who isn’t interested in him, and maybe shouldn’t be, as we learn by the song’s end. Similarly, the chipper bounce of “Sweet and Indestructible Love” contains the arresting lines “Nightingale silence / romantic violence on the / slow boat to lonely / am I the only fool?”
Pigeon English’s way with twisting words comes perhaps into sharpest focus on the EP’s closer, “Say It Simply.” True to its title, musically and lyrically it may be the most straightforward song on the record. “Never tell a lie / and break my heart,” Larney and Nelson implore. But you get the keen sense — aided by some lush pedal steel playing by Ed Iarusso — that the narrator’s heart is likely to be broken whether the person he’s talking to tells the truth or not.
As the name of the band suggest, Larney’s and Nelson’s songwriting delves into the way words can twist around and mean two things at once. With a language so prone to misunderstanding, is it any wonder that, even in a three-minute song, love can quickly get so complex? But thanks to songwriting this fun and sharp, complicated, agonizing relationship troubles have rarely been so catchy.
Word is that Larney and Nelson are bringing a drummer into the fold, looking to play their first shows as a trio possibly within a month. So New Haven will have a chance to dance and sway to these songs live soon enough, and maybe feel a little better about feeling bad.