Review Summary: It's the same place on a map, but most things have turned over.
An artist’s most confounding or difficult work, when finally breached by the listener, often creates the strongest emotional connection. This rings true for Boston’s indie grunge-punk post-hardcore-suggesting underground enigma Pile, with their fourth and latest album, You’re Better Than This
. This title seems like it may be self-directed, perhaps indicating doubt that the listener will be satisfied with the band’s latest offering. Indeed, on the surface level, Pile has done little to alter their musical formula from 2012’s dripping
: angular, aggressive guitar riffs, several heaps (piles) of dissonance, and perhaps most notably, the unhinged vocals of Rick Maguire. All the key elements are here, yet You’re Better Than This
is assuredly less accessible than either dripping
or magic isn’t real
(maybe they’re starting a trend of capitalization with this one), primarily due to more subtle, often sparse songwriting. While this may hold the album back on the first couple listens, leaving listeners struggling to grasp on to a memorable hook, ultimately You’re Better Than This
provides a stronger emotional experience from a band that has never been lacking in cathartic moments.
One needs to look no further than the opening track to notice that Pile’s songwriting has changed since last time. In contrast to dripping
’s catchy, riff-heavy “Baby Boy,” “The World is Your Motel” is an intense listen, never letting up in its pounding punk assault for three minutes, with hardly a hook to be found. Most tracks on You’re Better Than This
follow this more sparse formula, often reaching their conclusion without much emotional resolution. The album leans more towards the post-hardcore (as in Bear vs. Shark or At the Drive-in) angular riffage of dripping
than the more straightforward garage rock of magic isn’t real
, but Pile’s general sound has taken a heavier, uglier turn here, most notably on “Hot Breath.” A veritable dirge, the track includes Rick Maguire yelling an album standout line, “feel my tits start to grooooooow” over the most uneasy, tumultuous backdrop the band has crafted to date. Maguire in particular is more unhinged than ever. While the unrestrained vocals were always a key feature of Pile songs, on You’re Better Than This
, Maguire sounds angrier and more out-of-sorts, fitting of an altogether more tense album. Perhaps the album’s title represents Maguire’s own frustration with himself, mirrored in the way most of the songs seem to refuse any emotional build and release that is naturally craved by the listener.
This lack of emotional flow within tracks sounds like it would be a detriment to the album’s overall emotional strength. After all, dripping
had the climactic guitar solos of “Prom Song,” arguably the band’s biggest “hit,” and there is nothing similar present on You’re Better Than This
. On first listen, one can’t help but think that the entire album seems a little unfinished. The lyrics provide little insight, sometimes approaching Pavement levels of ambiguity. But like Pavement before them, mundane single p-word name and all, Pile somehow manages to make a line like, “I sleepwalk with my second grade teacher,” evoke an emotional response. On the aforementioned “The World is your Motel,” Maguire venomously assures the listener that he can indeed “send mail, cook food, and complete other simple tasks, if required,” maybe sarcastically suggesting that that’s all he’s good for. The album does reach some form of climax, with the final track, “Appendicitis” coming in with a verse melody that recalls The Monitor
. But even the climax of the album suggests a lack of resolution and could seemingly continue pounding on forever. Overall, this album sounds frustrated, angry, and uncomfortable, and these sentiments are reflected more effectively than ever before in Pile’s songwriting.
All of this is not to say that the album is not enjoyable on the surface level. “Mr. Fish” offers one of the quieter moments on the album, before bursting into a catchy guitar-driven section. “Touched by Comfort” starts off with Maguire sounding dusty and down-trodden, followed by an emotional outro with a glimmer of hope. It seems no Pile album would be complete without some form of jangly fingerpicked acoustic flourish, here represented more than ever with the flawless interlude, “Fuck the Police.” Though there are fewer catchy riffs here, the guitars and bass sound heavier; with a thundering low-end that is matched perfectly by the explosive drum production. Certainly, You’re Better Than This
lacks a bit of the rock ‘n roll energy of previous efforts, a major draw for those albums, but it makes up for that by providing a more affecting, if not more confused, listen.