Pile - A Hairshirt of Purpose

by Jon Burke Rating:7 Release Date:2017-03-31

Boston’s Pile are fueled by a highly specific blend of musical nostalgia. On previous albums comparisons could be drawn between Pile and Shellac or The Jesus Lizard – a guitar-driven sound that was at once caustic and rollicking. On their latest album, A Hairshirt of Purpose, The band’s sound immediately recalls such 1990s indie rock greats as Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. This sonic shift means Pile’s sound has somewhat softened and though not as anthemic as Built to Spill, nor as noodly as Modest Mouse, A Hairshirt of Purpose stands in stark contrast to what has come before. This is not to say that all the changes are welcome but, instead, that Pile are more interested in evolution than perfection and the result is a uniquely flawed record.

The album’s opener, “Worms”, is a languid ballad that quietly plunks along and only serves to introduce a recurring lyrical theme, worms, to puzzled listeners. The casual blues of “Worms” then gives way to the disjointed aggression of “Hissing for Peace” – is a noisy reminder of classic Pile and at times The Fall. Things finally fall into place with Hairshirt’s third track, “Rope’s Length”, a song that is not only the album’s longest but also sets-up the record’s tonal themes in a single song by showcasing the band’s range with shifting tempos, vocal styles and dynamics. On A Hairshirt of Purpose, third time is definitely the charm.

On “No Bone,” Pile frontman Rick Maguire croons: “You can find me in the back/ If you can find me at all/ But I’ll try to be kind”. It’s an odd line that quite fittingly sums up the next section of A Hairshirt of Purpose in which Maguire seems to be mostly hanging back in the mix and when he does venture forth tries his best to sing on key. Maguire’s normal singing voice resembles a slightly less baritone, significantly less practiced Bill Callahan – still soothing but without the polish. The serenity established by “No Bone” soon comes to an end however when the album’s single, “Texas” kicks-in.

“Texas” immediately recalls The Fall and the pulsing, flailing howl of The Jesus Lizard. Similarly aggressive, “Hairshirt” features a spiraling guitar riff and a thunderous performance from the band’s highly alliterate drummer, Kriss Kuss. The disjointed placement of “Texas” and “Hairshirt” into the tracklist only serve to reinforce Tiny Mix Tapes’ Ben Levinson’s recent criticism of A Hairshirt of Purpose’s sequencing.

As if to deepen the mess, the album returns to its relative quiet with: “I Don’t Want to Do This Anymore” – a track plodding along like the theme to a classic western. “Dogs” has Maguire nearly whining like the dogs he references between brief interludes of soaring guitar and militaristic snares. “Slippery” begins with quiet acoustic plucking and explodes into a frantic finale that disappears as quickly as it emerged. The album’s closer, “Fingers”, is another showcase track for Pile. The whiplash dynamic and tempo changes on this track are enough to leave listeners questioning Maguire’s sanity. The album was supposedly partially written while the frontman was on hiatus from society in a remote Georgia cabin… and, while there is a certain hermetic genius to the whole affair, the record’s self-indulgent insanity is all too often the real standout on A Hairshirt of Purpose.

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