Demons are nothing new in rock music. Without them, we would have no Unknown Pleasures, no Dirt, no Berlin or anything released by Xiu Xiu. Still, when you read the press release for The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up’s new record Picks Us Apart, you really think, “Wow, there was some effed-up stuff going into this record!” Written by frontman Paul Gonzenbach as a letter to Absolutely Kosher label head Cory Brown, it mentions buying a gun and being overcome with mental illness. He also states, as an aside, that the record was written from a more consciously “gay perspective.” Though that last part isn’t so much anything dark or uncomfortable, that is an unusual combination of influences, mental illness being enough of a personal and awkward issue to drive the album into a noticeably darker direction. But since The Pile-Up’s music was always kind of a bummer to begin with, it’s not like it’s, well, shocking.
Picks Us Apart has its share of darkness, sounding somewhere between the sleep-core of Bedhead and the post-punk of Joy Division, yet somehow, the band plays their sorrows out in a very palatable way, coloring each song with beautiful melodies and lovely arrangements. On opener “A Toast to the Happy Couple,” it’s hard not to think of Interpol, as the opening bass notes are quite similar to those of “Slow Hands,” yet as the song progresses, it reveals itself to be more serene and graceful. Supposedly adapted from some of Gonzenbach’s letters, it’s a deeply personal beginning to an album that never really enters party music territory. Gonzenbach sings lines like “It’s the little things that fuck me up the most,” between lines of verse written like a will.
“Jailhouse Rock” comes closer to the dingy concrete punk of Joy Division, abrasive chords ringing out between moments of empty space. In a dark, but ironic, twist, Gonzenbach opens the song with “The coroner threw a party at the county jail.” “Black & Gold” offers more subdued melancholy, while “Low Rent Horror” rocks a little bit more, without going into very dissonant territory. It’s one of the most enjoyable tracks on the record, possibly because it’s written in a more accessible manner, but whoever said that was a bad thing? “Silver Sparkler” is, melodically, more like the Cure, with plenty of chorus-laden guitar, though lyrically, offers some of the most personal gems on the record. Describing a break-up starting from psychiatric treatment back to personal accounts of events like “Have you ever seen the stars/after the rain?,” the song is possibly the best on the album, as well as one of the most heartbreaking.
Picks Us Apart is dark, sure. Nobody ever expected it not to be. But as an album, it’s more than listenable. It’s a beautiful and darkly personal record, inspired by many of those “demons,” as we say. Yet, it’s not from the perspective of one who has been overcome by them, but rather by someone who has overcome them. It may not all be a pretty picture, but we, like Gonzenbach, all come out of it triumphant in the end.
Xiu Xiu – Knife Play
The Cure – Faith
The New Year – The End is Near
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.