Pile on the Focused Confusion of Their New Album, Green and Gray

Originally published on pastemagazine.com

If you’ve found yourself at a show in a grubby Boston basement in recent years, you’ve probably heard of Pile. People in that corner of the world speak of the band with the kind of reverence usually reserved for hometown legends like Pixies or the Lemonheads. They’ve been the subject of entire albums by their peers and countless homemade t-shirts. But the cult of Pile has developed almost entirely separate from the band over the course of their decade-long career, and on their latest album Green and Gray it sounds like they might have grown past their status as Boston’s DIY mascot.

Frontman Rick Maguire and his band have fought hard for their success, touring relentlessly for years and coming back from each tour a little older to a city that was a little bit different. That feeling of transience only accumulated over time, and when Maguire returned to Boston after touring Pile’s last album A Hairshirt of Purpose, it felt like those roots he’d relied on weren’t all there anymore.

“A lot of things had changed in that city,” Maguire tells Paste. “I was living in a new spot, a lot of people had moved. There were just certain things that I was used to that had changed, and I think maybe some of that was internal too. There was just a lot going on within me that felt alienated from the place that I had lived in for a long time.”

Maguire notes that Boston’s sense of impermanence might have contributed to these feelings. “It’s a lot of students, and it’s people that are there for a short time and then they leave.”

As a result, Maguire turned inward, staying in his room in his new neighborhood of Cambridgeport to write the songs that would eventually become Green and Gray. Meanwhile, Pile welcomed two new members—Chappy Hull on guitar and Alex Molini on bass—and the band was more spread out than ever before, with Hull in Nashville, Molini in New York and drummer Kris Kuss also in Boston. Maguire would spend weeks writing new material alone before bringing the band together to work on it in short bursts.

“We would schedule blocks of time to get together to work on stuff, so it was like I was working on a presentation of material almost,” Maguire says. “Then we would all disperse and go back to where we lived and I would internalize all that again, work on it, edit it and then bring it back. So we did that about three times.”

To make this process easier, and to be closer to his family members who already lived there, Maguire decided to pack his bags and move in with Hull in Nashville. It was a difficult move, one that triggered a lot of anxiety and even panic attacks for Maguire. He channelled some of that anxiety into the album’s lead single, “Bruxist Grin,” a restless, seething track filled with lines about white-knuckling your way through change. Bruxism refers to grinding your teeth, so Maguire’s grin was the happy face he put on for the world while taking that leap of faith to Nashville.

Through the move, Maguire’s solitary writing process and the band’s quick bursts of creative energy, Pile emerged with their most sonically lush, intricately crafted and dynamic album to date. Green and Gray channels all those feelings of displacement, transience and wayworn confusion into a remarkably focused and deliberate project, one that feels aware that the path of least resistance might just be to embrace the change.

“No longer burdened by youth,” frontman Rick Maguire sings at the start of the opener “Firewood.” It feels like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, and that statement carries through the rest of the album like a tailwind urging it forward. Maguire cites “Firewood” as the most challenging song to write on the album, but also the one that he’s most proud of.

“I’d sort of had that in mind as the opener since I started writing it, so I think I put so much pressure on it to be that,” Maguire says. “The first demo of it is unrecognizable from what it is now. It’s in a different meter, the timing and melody are very different.”

The lyrics on “Firewood” and the rest of Green and Gray are tighter and more directly personal, speaking to visceral emotions too strong to be contained. This emotion manifests itself politically as well, like on the album’s searing midpoint, “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller.” It’s one of Pile’s angriest songs, two minutes of unbridled rage directed at the president’s advisor who orchestrated some of the administration’s harshest immigration policies.

“From a long line of translucent lizards comes our boy Stephen,” Maguire screams. “That inferiority complex passed down generations.”

But unlike on “Soft Hands,” where the lyrics lend targeted thrust to Maguire’s anger, Green and Gray also holds instances where Maguire’s words take a backseat to the dark, serene beauty of the music. Maguire is no stranger to moments when the sun breaks through the clouds, but they’ve never been this reliable and emotionally staggering. The stakes feel higher on Green and Gray, and its palpable tension is all the more rewarding when the dynamics shift and that tension is released.

Much of the album’s lush, orchestral sound is due to Pile’s collaboration with producer Kevin McMahon, whose credits include Swans, The Walkmen, Gang of Youths and Real Estate. Maguire met him during a solo tour with Titus Andronicus, who McMahon has also worked with in the past. They decided to work together then and there, and Maguire went up to McMahon’s studio in upstate New York for a pre-production meeting about the album.

“I told him that I wanted the record to sound dark,” Maguire says. “Not gloomy or anything like that, but sonically dark, like not a lot of bright or harsh sounds. It’s just a sort of frequency thing that comes off in the recording that I was interested in trying to do.”

McMahon helped Pile stay on track with this vision and gave the band the opportunity to work with a whole set of new toys that they’d only begun to explore on past albums. The results can be found throughout Green and Gray: the soaring strings on “Hair,” the atmospheric synths at the start of “Hiding Places” and the soft keys on the closer “No Hands,” which the band simply referred to as “piano ballad” right up until it was finished.

The band has already begun working on new material out of their new home in Nashville while they gear up for their Green and Gray tour. Maguire says he’s been writing mostly on piano.

“It’s sort of like I’ll take a tiny venture out of what I’m comfortable with each time, but it’s never been a huge leap,” Maguire says on how his records have progressed. “I feel like with the next batch of stuff it might get a lot more odd.”

The members of Pile may not be as young as they once were, but they’ve learned to confront change head on, even if that means gritting their teeth a bit. They’ve got a new house, a new city, a bigger, fuller sound. But they’re still the same band whose raucous, wild songs can be heard spilling out onto the street from houses all across Boston on a cold winter night. Green and Gray finds Pile diving deeper into the strengths that brought them where they are in the first place, while recognizing that things are quite a bit different now, and that’s okay.

The World is Finally Ready for Duster, the Droning Space Cadets of Yesteryear

Originally published on pastemagazine.com

The music of the band Duster is hard to classify. It’s been called many things, but none of these classifications have managed to stick all that well. There’s more natural propulsion behind Duster’s music than slowcore contemporaries like Codeine and Bedhead, and it’s more spaced-out than artists like the Microphones or Built to Spill.

A more apt description of Duster’s music might be a ride in one of those airplanes that simulate zero-gravity. Your feet leave the ground of their own accord, and you spend a few moments suspended there, maybe spinning around a little bit, totally out of control. Then you land back on the ground and feel a little bit dazed and totally confused as to how you got there in the first place.

Duster is a trio from San Jose, Calif. Clay Parton and Canaan Dove Amber founded the band in 1996 and released a handful of cassettes and seven-inches before putting out their debut record Stratosphere in 1998. Jason Albertini contributed drums to three songs on Stratosphere but became much more involved on the follow-ups, the 1975 EP released in 1999, and the band’s second full-length album Contemporary Movement, which came out in 2000.

The band’s brief discography was relatively well-received by critics, but it never really found an audience, and before anyone could blink they had broken up. Their label, Up Records, then home to Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, was experiencing a downturn following the passing of founder Chris Takino in 2000, and Duster’s music had been little more than a blip on the radar commercially. So the band members moved on. Parton and Amber started a recording studio called Low Earth Orbit, and Albertini dove headfirst into his own band Helvetia, which was initially distributed by Parton’s Static Cult label. They were fully prepared to let Duster rest as a droning, hazy footnote to the indie rock explosion of the ’90s.

But now, almost two decades later, Duster has a devoted, even rabid following. Vinyl copies of their albums sell for hundreds of dollars on the online marketplace Discogs. If you ask the right people, Duster are revered as legends and pioneers—not just by fans of the genre but by important contemporary artists—and they’re suddenly poised for a comeback, having played their first shows in 18 years this winter.

The music was always good, so why are people just now starting to come around to it? The answer starts, as with most things these days, with the internet. Duster were painfully obscure in their time, and they mostly relied on Up Records and their friends in bigger bands to carry their sound to new ears. Now they don’t need a label to reach new people. Word of mouth travels at lightning speed, and people no longer have to go digging through record bins labeled “miscellaneous” or “rock/pop” to find a Duster record. If you dig through the related artists for your favorite indie band on Spotify, you’re bound to come across Duster before too long.

Another helpful byproduct of the streaming era is a rising indifference towards genre lines and labels. The fringes of the “rock music” classification are bleeding into adjacent areas like pop, jazz, ambient and electronic music and even hip-hop. Artists who create their own spaces between genre signifiers are no longer just labeled experimental and shunted to the side. That space between genres is where Duster has always operated, and it’s where people are finding them today.

There’s still the pesky business of reconciling Duster’s sluggish, fuzzy sound with the aesthetics of the current scene. Duster have never been concerned with the whims of the mainstream, a fact that’s evident in how they’ve chosen to make their slow return to the limelight. But this time around appears to be different, because Duster’s listen-if-you-want-to attitude is working out in spite of itself, and they fit in now in ways they never did before.

Since 2000 when Duster was last active, and particularly in the last decade or so, guitar music has undergone a radical transformation. It’s now acceptable and even cool to rock at your own pace and play as loud or as quiet as you want. In Duster’s time, the norm—at least in the circles that might actually pick up one of their records—was late-career Pavement and Sonic Youth. It was Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker screaming “Dig Me Out” as Sleater-Kinney, and artists like PJ Harvey and Beck adopting a new sound entirely almost every year. It was bands like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam desperately carrying the torch for the grunge movement. With all of that going on, it seems almost inevitable that a hazy, unassuming project like Duster would get buried in the detritus of the alternative explosion.

Duster’s entire lifespan fits into the three-year period between Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997 and Kid A in 2000. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Duster’s sound could also fit neatly somewhere in the aesthetic flyover country between those two albums. Now, Radiohead’s latest effort is a melancholy, mostly slow-burning reverie that feels similarly unconcerned with tangibility or lucidity, and the field is littered with artists who owe at least part of their sound to Duster.

One such artist is (Sandy) Alex G. The renowned Philly songwriter has been putting out ragged, lo-fi weirdo pop since 2013, and his music builds on a lot of the ideas Duster first put forth. Any number of Alex’s songs could fit snugly into Duster’s discography, from the low hiss of “Memory” to the melodic shuffle of “Walk.” Both artists have a propensity for taking truly sweet and beautiful melodies and obscuring them as if underwater, only letting them shine through when absolutely necessary. Duster accomplishes this to great effect on the Contemporary Movement cut “Unrecovery,” with clear, ringing lead guitar breaking through the wall of noise around it. (Sandy) Alex G does something similar on his recent loosie “fay,” building tension with a tangled mess of soft guitar before the chorus comes and opens everything up. It’s unclear how much Alex knew of Duster when he was writing these songs, but there’s definitely some mutual respect there now, as Duster’s first gig in 18 years was an opening slot for him at Warsaw in Brooklyn.

Also on that bill was Harmony Tividad of the L.A.-based duo Girlpool. “I walked in during their soundcheck and I was shocked, just so deeply shocked that it was them,” Tividad says of her experience at the show.

Duster’s music has had a huge effect on Tividad’s approach to songwriting, both on her own and with Girlpool. “It’s poppy, but in a way that’s really subtle and untraceable really, like you don’t know why, it just is, and I love that about it,” Tividad says. “It’s rare for people to trust in a song when they’re writing it… but I think what really struck me about their music was that it was just so trusting in itself and it didn’t seem like it was sacrificing any moment to thinking about what someone else would want to hear.”

Everything about Duster’s music has a sense of deliberation to it, from the motley production and low vocal mix to the unique tone and mood the band brings to each of their songs. Girlpool have this same quality of effortless purpose on their most recent album What Chaos is Imaginary, especially when the duo’s guitars grow big and shoegazey on tracks like “Roses” and “Where You Sink,” the latter of which Tividad cites as being particularly influenced by Duster. Numerous other young bands wear their Duster influences on their sleeves whether they know it or not, like Horse Jumper of Love, The Spirit of the Beehive, Ovlov and Hovvdy just to name a few. They all bring something new and different to the table, but no one has since been able to replicate that implacable honesty and foggy, weightless state that Duster’s music achieves.

Duster just wrapped up a short run of tour dates along the West Coast, and they’re putting out a box set of their entire discography plus a handful of unreleased tracks on March 22. Other than a one-off Instagram post from last April saying they were “recording a bit,” no new music has been announced, although there have been rumors of an EP of new material on the way. Duster’s sound might have changed in the intervening years. It might be a bit more hi-fi now, a bit more precise. But unlike most bands who return after a 20-year absence, change is not a necessity for Duster. They fit in better now than they did when they were first active because their peers today are also their fans, and the indie-rock world has caught up to them at last. If Duster does decide to make a full-scale comeback, it’ll be to an audience that’s finally ready to float away into space with them and not look back.

Live Review: LVL UP are the boyband America needs in the 21st Century

Originally published on Vanyaland

 

LVL UP are the great American boyband.

Or, at least, that’s how they jokingly described themselves at the start of their set at the Middle East Upstairs on Thursday (October 5). After a few doses of their distinctive brand of fuzz rock, not one member of the spirited crowd would disagree.

Bolstered by a pair of phenomenal sets from openers Littlefoot and Loone, LVL UP kicked things off at the Cambridge club with “Hidden Driver,” the breakout hit from their most recent album that recalls the frantic strums and vocals of Neutral Milk Hotel. The band started the song with a slow, deliberate build-up, exchanging cheeky glances and withholding any melodies that could reveal which song they were about to play. When they finally exploded into the verse and guitarist Dave Benton started singing, all four members broke out into uncontrollable grins, as if they had reached the punchline of a joke that only they were in on.

Even after more than six years as a band, it makes sense that LVL UP would be this excited to play. After all, they have had a pretty fortunate run since their formation while attending college at SUNY Purchase. Exhausted from years spent grinding away in New York’s DIY scene, LVL UP was on the verge of calling it quits when representatives of the indie giant Sub Pop caught a few tour dates following their beloved 2014 album Hoodwink’d. Charmed, the Seattle label offered to release their follow-up, the critically-acclaimed 2016 full-length Return to Love.

Now when LVL UP perform, it’s as if they’ve been given a hall pass, a second chance to keep going and just have fun with it. This translates to a looseness on stage that energizes the crowd and lends a fun, imaginative flair to established hits like “I Feel Extra-Natural” and the all-out freneticism of “Blur.” But even at their most boisterous, the band’s underlying musicianship comes through to bring everything back together. This became especially evident on Return to Love standout “Pain,” when vocalist Mike Caridi stealthily replaced the bridge with a few lines from Elliott Smith’s “Roman Candle” before descending into a cacophony of pounding drums and squealing guitars.

When the four members of LVL UP looked up from their instruments to proclaim that the next song would be the last of the night, they seemed to share in the groan that rose from the audience, wishing they could keep playing forever. LVL UP have found themselves part of a long tradition of American guitar bands trying to forge a place for themselves among their ’90s heroes while they wait for their big break. But when they finally launched into “The Closing Door” and the crowd began to move again, it was easy to believe that they could be the band to carry that torch to great new heights.

Pixies shape the sound of alt-rock with “Come On Pilgrim”

 

They did not know it yet, but in 1987 a whole generation of soon-to-be disciples of the unnatural side of rock were awaiting their awakening. When the Pixies released their clamorous debut Come On Pilgrim late that year, legions of unsuspecting fans were introduced to a brand new world of jaggedly beautiful noise, demonic possession, and illicit sexual fervor.

The cult that was the Pixies began a year earlier, in 1986, when a man who called himself Black Francis and his college pal Joey Santiago placed an ad in the Boston Phoenix seeking a bassist who’s influences were equal parts Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul, and Mary. They received only one response, from a woman named Kim Deal, and the trio formed the Pixies along with drummer and part-time magician David Lovering. They were like nothing anyone had ever heard, switching seamlessly between smooth pop hooks and frantic noise, and as they developed their sound the cult that had surrounded them grew as well, eventually attracting such devotees as Kurt Cobain, Pavement, and Radiohead.

Come On Pilgrim was the staggering initiation to that cult. Clocking in at only 20 minutes of playtime, the Pixies’ debut served as both a fiercely distinctive statement and an indication of what was to come. Its eight tracks included some of the band’s most inventive work alongside its most accessible.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/0YXEvIGfgX8LKrSSgnciZt

On “Holiday Song,” for example, the Pixies came about as close as they would ever come to a high-flying guitar-pop song, while just two tracks earlier they delivered a pair of high-octane punk songs in “Vamos” and “Isla de Encanta” that feature Black Francis barking in Spanish over Santiago’s frenzied guitar. These relatively straightforward cuts are contrasted by tracks like the thrashing “I’ve Been Tired,” which finds Francis growling about unrequited desire, or the roiling closer “Levitate Me” that spirals from murky depths into an undeniably poppy chorus without a second thought.

However, the true embodiment of the energy of Come On Pilgrim comes on the opener “Caribou.” In many ways, the first song that the public heard from the Pixies was their most representative and ambitious, reaching heights that were not often overcome on later albums. Employing the powerful dynamics that the Pixies would become known for, “Caribou” combines some of Black Francis’s sweetest singing with his most raw and explosive, making it sound right at home even among the band’s more refined later work like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. For the band’s most fervent disciples, the squealing guitar line that announces the Pixies’ arrival to the world has become synonymous with everything new and exciting in rock music.

While it was followed up in just six months by the hugely influential Surfer RosaCome On Pilgrim remains one of the strongest and most unique inaugural statements in rock music. Providing a brief but potent teaser of what was to be a long and celebrated career, the Pixies’ first album set the standard from which they would develop their sound and become one of the most important bands of the pre-grunge era.

While some critics refer to the Boston band in somewhat reductionist terms for their contributions as the “quiet-loud band” of alternative rock, the unique sonic idea that the Pixies brought to the table went much deeper and spoke to a furious and yet somehow repressed energy in those who listened.

With Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies not only carved a place for themselves in the traditions that they were joining but also forged a new movement, one of self-discovery in gnarled and beautiful noise, of letting the world see and hear your own visceral and often unpleasant truths and feeling okay with it all.

Featured Pixies photo via 4AD. Listen to two vintage Pixies recordings from 1987 below, the first a full broadcast from Emerson College’s WERS Studios in January 1987 and the second a performance of “Nimrod’s Son” at Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain.

Originally published on Vanyaland

Crumb deliver woozy, jazz-inflected indie rock on standout Locket EP

Originally published on Vanyaland: http://www.vanyaland.com/2017/07/10/new-sounds-crumb-deliver-woozy-jazz-inflected-indie-rock-on-standout-locket-ep/

After two years of traveling back and forth between New York and Boston to meet up and record, Crumb will finally be settling in Brooklyn this summer. But not before the quartet, which met and formed at Tuft University in Somerville a few years back, delivers one excellent parting gift in a new EP titled Locket.

On the surface, Crumb craft woozy, jazz-inflected indie rock that defies simple genre categorization. And Locket — their second EP in under a year and follow-up to 2016’s Crumb EP — marks the band’s most refined and consistent work to date.

Opening track “Plants” opens Locket with a shimmering guitar line and singer Lila Ramani’s description of a flimsy and somewhat saccharine relationship. That’s followed by “Recently Played,” which recalls Crumb’s earlier work with syrupy synths and jazzy percussion courtesy of drummer Jonathan Gilad. The bulk of the progression that Crumb achieves on Locket can be found in the final two tracks, with “Thirty-Nine” channeling the melodic psychedelia of early Tame Impala and the constant shifts of the title track and closer demonstrating the band’s rare combination of inventiveness and cohesion.

With the move to Brooklyn comes the promise of more consistent output and national touring, making Crumb a band to watch not only for us in the Northeast, but the rest of the country as well. Listen to the Locket EP via Soundcloud below.

Review: Pinegrove articulates youth, introspection, and experience on “Everything So Far”

everything so far

Everything So Far, the recently reissued debut from the ragged Montclair, New Jersey rock outfit Pinegrove, is more of a compilation than an album. Its whopping 21 songs account for over five years of work that was previously spread over multiple small releases until Boston label Run For Cover Records compiled and released it online in 2015. But despite its chronologically and thematically disparate nature, Everything So Far comes together to paint a beautifully cohesive picture of youth, introspection, and experience, and serves as a fitting precursor to Pinegrove’s critically acclaimed sophomore album Cardinal.

The album opens with “New Friends”, a track that was later repurposed as Cardinal’s closer. “New Friends” describes the feeling of isolation after letting old friendships fade and represents one of Pinegrove’s most anthemic songs to date. It also serves as a perfect introduction to the unassumingly brilliant lyricism of songwriter and bandleader Evan Stephens Hall. “New Friends” is followed by “Angelina”, a simple but affecting rock ballad that finds Hall’s rootsy twang musing about nostalgia and a codependent relationship. Some of the album’s most subtle instrumentation and introspective lyrics can be found two tracks later on “Need”, in which sparkling guitar notes rise out of the ether around impassioned acoustic strumming and uncertain vocals. On “Namesake”, Hall sings about self-doubt and the fear of being unable to express yourself with the lines “I’ve been trying to say, but these awful letters rearrange my name, my namesake”.

This is an example of what makes Pinegrove songs so effective; each one takes a specific thought or emotion, often those that are particularly rich and complex, and expresses them with concision and strikingly literate grace. On “Morningtime”, one of the album’s highlights, Hall manages to express the ethos of the project he has embarked upon with Pinegrove in the lines, “I’ve been trying to capture both ends of the splinter: the visible part between my fingernails and the part still in my finger,” and later, “Ever since I can remember, since the day before they split, I’ve been trying to capture some realm I don’t know yet”. The songs on this album are vastly different in tone, duration, and lyrical content, but each one allows the audience to occupy a particular emotional space, whether it be conversational or introspective, see that space the way Pinegrove does, and perhaps come to better understand how we engage with those emotions ourselves. Each piece in this 21-song missive of self-discovery contributes to a rich and explorative tapestry of human experience. Everything So Far follows Pinegrove on a journey to find their voice, one where every stop is meaningful and perfectly in place.

Why Write About Music?

In a bygone era there existed a purely practical reason for writing about music: in order to hear an album, you had to go to your local record store and spend $10. Music writers were responsible for informing you about how best to spend that money, which albums will suit your taste the most and which will leave you wanting more. Now, with the whole world of recorded music at our fingertips, perhaps the only practical justification is simply that we need a filter to sort through the seemingly infinite canon available to us.

However, writing about music has never been practical. It has always been inspired by something irrational within us, some visceral urge to listen to and think about music as much as possible. Music journalists do not do their work for any sort of reward other than being close to the music and interacting with it in a unique way. But for them, that is enough. The joy of connecting with a piece of music, expressing that connection, and possibly even helping someone else experience it too is the fuel that feeds the fire. With the task of music journalism comes both the power to influence how people perceive and interact with culture and the responsibility to understand the implications of that power. Music journalists are reporters, archivists, tastemakers, but above all they are just people who love music and want others to love it with them.