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.

The Photography of Ansel Adams Is Coming to the MFA

Originally published on bostonmagazine.com

The work of legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams is set to go on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in a new exhibition titled Ansel Adams in Our Time. The exhibition will include around 100 Adams photographs alongside works by the 19th century photographers who influenced him and contemporary artists who followed in his footsteps.

The Adams photographs on display will include notable works spanning his entire career, from his beginnings capturing the dramatic landscapes of the West to his time in San Francisco documenting urban sprawl and the Depression. The famous snow-tipped peaks of 1942’s “The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming” will be featured prominently in the exhibition, as will “Freeway Interchange, Los Angeles,” which was made some 25 years later.

The MFA decided to expand upon a 2005 Adams show to celebrate the recent gift of over 450 of his photographs, this time bringing the iconic artist into the modern day and contextualizing the lasting impact he had on landscape photography.

“It’s roughly the same sized show, but the emphasis is very different,” says the show’s curator, Karen Haas, who currently serves as the Lane Curator of Photographs for the MFA. “He’s this phoenix-like character, and knowing where he was coming from and who he admired seemed so much more interesting than redoing the show we did earlier and just looking at his career in a thematic, chronological way.”

The exhibition will primarily be organized around Yosemite National Park and the American Southwest, which are the areas where Adams first picked up the camera and began his career in the 1920s. It places his early work in the context of 19th century government survey photographers like Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, who shot some of the same views as Adams and inspired him to expand upon their ideas.

As for the contemporary photographers on display, Haas wanted to focus on artists who took inspiration from Adams’ subject matter and technique, but added their own visual or emotional perspective. Some artists included in the exhibition are more clearly connected to Adams than others, but Haas stresses that they are all “in conversation” with his work somehow, whether thematically, aesthetically, or technically.

On the surface, these contemporary artists deal with many of the same issues as Adams: vast untouched wilderness, land rights, natural resources, urban sprawl, and the human impact on the land. But they all bring a unique perspective that isn’t found in the photography of Adams or his predecessors.

“The photographers I chose for that space were virtually all foreign-born,” says Haas. “I think that says something about the national park as a symbol of America. As Americans it’s something we take more for granted, but for foreign-born photographers it seems to have another layer of meaning.”

A good example of this is Binh Danh, a Vietnamese photographer who came to America from what was then Saigon with his family in the 1970s. Danh uses daguerreotypes, a 19th century process that produces images with silvery, reflective surfaces, to capture the national parks of the Southwest. The resulting images allow the viewer to see themselves reflected in the vast, otherwise empty landscape.

Another featured artist is Abelardo Morell, a Cuban-born contemporary photographer who taught at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for many years. Morell brought a massive tent into the wilderness to create a makeshift darkroom and fixed it with a high-quality digital camera, a periscope, and a mirror. This allowed him to capture some of the same views that Adams photographed and project them onto the ground under the tent, resulting in more impressionistic landscapes in which the cracks in the pavement and terrain under the tent are clearly visible in the photograph.

Haas also focused on including as many women in the exhibition as possible in order to debunk the longstanding belief in the photography world that the Western landscape was the domain of the white male photographer. She highlighted in particular the work of Laura McPhee and Victoria Sambunaris, both of whom capture stark, beautiful landscapes in their work.

McPhee is an environmental photographer who looks at the aftermath of human-caused forest fires and the plant life that begins to take hold after they pass. Sambunaris revisits many of the same sites that Adams shot and captures them in massive, high-definition color prints, some of which stretch up to eight feet across.

Haas also hopes to include a live stream of Yosemite National Park from the viewpoints that Adams documented in his work. Visitors to the exhibition will see the national park as it is at that very moment, and if they stay long enough, they’ll see the light change and move across the valley.

“When we say ‘In Our Time,’ we literally mean the day you’re there,” she says.

The exhibition attempts to impress upon the viewer not just the singular nature of Adams’ work, but also the astounding visual legacy that he left on the collective consciousness of the country, often without us even realizing it.

“For many of us who might never go to some of these places… when we conjure up Yellowstone National Park, the view we conjure up is actually an Ansel Adams photograph,” said Haas.