Album Of The Week: Pile You’re Better Than This
Tom is off Album Of The Week duty today, so I’ve stepped in to tell you about Pile’s new LP. Observers of the insular New England music scene have always referenced Pile as its backbone; they’re the footnote at the bottom of a Speedy Ortiz track write-up, the namesake of Krill’s 2014 slipshod concept EP Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears. It’s not that Pile have been ignored; they just seem to have achieved the kind of mythical status typically ascribed to long-since-passed rock legends, so their actual music is often overlooked. It’s ironic that Pile have been graced with this type of acclaim, because they haven’t crafted any sort of intriguing overarching narrative, nor are they mysterious, elusive homebodies recording quiet contemplations on a four-track. They don’t have a snarky Twitter persona or apathetic affect. In an age when everyone is trying their absolute best to be a “Special Snowflake,” Pile are a band made up of four seemingly ordinary dudes who like noisy, acerbic rock music. They’re not trying to win you over in any unique way, and that’s what makes their third LP, You’re Better Than This, sound like pure fucking magic if it catches you at the right moment.
You’re Better Than This is the Ben Brodin-produced follow-up to the band’s 2012 Exploding In Sound debut, Dripping, a 10-track marathon of preemptive Pile “classics.” Dripping is an equally exhausting and rewarding first listen: around 40 minutes of leaden weight enmeshed by algorithmic buildups and breakdowns of instrumental muck. Moments of reprieve are rare. Similarly, You’re Better Than This initiates with “The World Is Your Motel,” a song that accelerates from the very first drumbeat and doesn’t let up as Rick Maguire talks himself down from a tantrum: “It’s fine!/ I keep a good attitude!/ But I’ll never be Elvis I guess/ Just one big, moist bag of garbage.” It’s a draining inaugural track, but its aggression is a winking false start to some of the most deftly navigated, erratic songs that Pile have ever released.
Elemental to Pile’s particular sonic brand is their willingness to embrace contradiction. Songs like “Touched By Comfort” begin with Maguire’s slow, oscillating ramblings, buying time before the tempo builds to a torrent and renders useless any attempt at finding lyrical clarity. Now you see it, now you don’t. You’re Better Than This is pointedly structured to pay the utmost attention to these primal, rabid moments, which explains the initially puzzling insertion of the delicate, instrumental interlude “Fuck The Police.” It’s easy to liken Pile’s cockeyed structural intervals and Maguire’s furious talk-singing to bands like Fugazi, or even the Breeders circa 1993, but at the risk of being misunderstood, I will argue that Pile have more in common with contemporary American musical theater than they do with their guitar-driven rock forebears. Un-costumed and unreservedly aware of their macho bravado, Pile are theatrical. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the record’s nearly eight-minute-long ostensible closer, “Appendicitis.” What begins as a morose (by Pile standards) ballad eventually cycles into the explosive hidden track “Rock And Roll Forever With The Customer In Mind.” Like any halfway decent musical, they end things on a high note. Each song on You’re Better Than This tells a story, whether it be a seemingly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness ramble or a thinly veiled absurdist tale about a man named Darryl Fish. They’re thoughtful, explanatory bits of rhetoric chronicling a down-and-out hero’s journey that balloon into something anthemic, a blown-out chorus debunking the struggle beneath.
If Rick Maguire were to audition for a Broadway show, he should try out for the role of Mark Cohen in the early ’90s rock opera Rent. Hyper-observant and typically soft-spoken, he’s the narrator of all life’s tiny intricacies, the guy who notices where the gaps are in a narrative, and knows how to fill them, regardless of how unpleasant the job may be. Maguire’s lyrics range from declarative sermons, (“The latrine is filled with holy water and things we all had in common”) to paranoid observations (“I wonder if my fate has been taped to my back because all your eyes look like they’re reading me as forms I was supposed to waive filled out”) to unabashed self-deprecation (“My résumé, while less than impressive, is consistent”). Over the past few months, I’ve consistently claimed that Pile’s lyricism is less important than their fraught arrangements, but that judgment only really applies to someone who has seen the band perform. Anyone who hasn’t had the privilege might look at this lyric sheet and just think, “What the actual fuck? Did adults make this?” Yeah, it’s true: A lot of Pile lyrics are really dumb. But hey, sometimes life is really dumb, so why not editorialize it?
You’re Better Than This is not a perfect album; it is less hook-heavy than Dripping, and its guitar parts aren’t as easily identifiable as those found on 2010’s Magic Isn’t Real. But You’re Better Than This is wildly successful because it is the most accessible Pile release to date. It’s not necessarily the album to convert non-believers, but it is the one that will pique their interest and inspire them to plunder the deeper catalog. Instrumental intricacies vary enough between tracks that the record doesn’t feel assaultive in the way that it might had they chosen to insert a bash-you-over-the-head cathartic breakdown in every song.
If anything, You’re Better Than This proves that Pile are not going to change things up anytime soon. Or ever, really. They will probably never be a universally acclaimed huge fucking deal, and they’re completely okay with that. Crowd-sourcing $15,000 to buy a tour van and get out on the road for four months is all that Pile really need to keep going. That and a steadfast, frenzied fanbase. Some might read into song titles like “#2 Hit Single” and think of it as a self-conscious bid for greatness, but “#2 Hit Single” is actually just the follow-up to 2010’s “Number One Hit Single.” In their five-plus years playing together as a band, Pile have always been considered The Best in certain circles. It’s just too damn bad if you disagree.
You’re Better Than This is out now via Exploding In Sound.
Other albums of note out today:
- Beech Creeps’ fire-breathing, self-titled debut
- Clare Maguire’s brash, uptempo EP Don’t Mess Me Around
- Dorthia Cottrell’s (of Windhand) self-titled, dusty Americana debut
- Eula’s rabid, phantasmagoric, post-punk LP Wool Sucking
- Kelly Clarkson’s dancey comeback attempt Piece By Piece
- Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s contemplative, jazz-inspired After
- Leviathan’s transcendent Scar Sighted
- The vinyl version of Levon Vincent’s free, self-titled, deep-house debut
- Moon Duo’s gloomy, terrestrial Shadow of the Sun
- Noel Gallagher’s self-produced, sophomore High Flying Birds album Chasing Yesterday
- of Montreal’s chaotic, post-divorce album Aureate Gloom
- Purity Ring’s long awaited, pop-leaning Another Eternity
- Sam Prekop’s second modular synthesis exercise The Republic
- Soko’s sophomore full-length featuring Ariel Pink, My Dreams Dictate My Reality
- Swervedriver’s first album in 17 years, I Wasn’t Born To Lose You
- Singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau’s Perfect Abandon