In certain parts of their native Boston, Pile are held in the kind of esteem usually reserved for the Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox or Matt Damon. Peers in the independent music scene, as well as critics, hold the same respect for the group. Yet six full-length releases deep into their career, the band are relative unknowns internationally, maintaining only a rabid cult following across the US and Europe. Often, Pile are relegated to performing at dive bars, basements, clubs and punk houses.
Starting life in 2007 as the solo project of the lyrically and vocally neurotic Rick Maguire, Pile have become mainstays and standard bearers of the thriving Boston DIY music scene. Their sound is rambunctious, yet refined. Their ‘90s Amerindie and punk influence are undeniable, but in the nine years they have had a full line-up Pile have honed an increasingly nimble and acrobatic sense of timing and interplay. They’re as likely to lean on quiet, deftly picked guitar arpeggios as they are to thrash out power chords. Meanwhile, Maguire’s lyrical style is as folk-inspired as it gets. He literately crafts singular character narratives and self-reflections with a heavy reliance on metaphor and clever turns of phrase.
Green and Gray is Pile’s seventh studio album. The circumstances behind its recording are unique to say the least. Gone are longtime guitarist Matt Becker and bassist Matt Connery. Stepping in are new members Chappy Hull and Alex Molini, who live in different parts of the country. This necessitated the booking of writing and rehearsal sessions for up to two weeks at a time. Recording took two weeks at the New York studio of engineer Kevin S. McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Frightened Rabbit, The Walkmen, Swans). This is the longest time Pile have spent in the studio working on an album.
While 2017’s A Hairshirt of Purpose captured Pile’s live shows more accurately than any of their previous releases, Green and Gray is an exercise in experimentation, expansion, catharsis and reflection. Opening track ‘Firewood’ sets the tone perfectly. While there have been motif sections, extended jams and vamping on riffs on earlier releases, this time the band go a step further, embellishing their musicianship with overdubs of strings, percussion and keys without any intrusion on the sonic formula.
‘Firewood’ specifically sees Pile cycle through a number of changes in tempo, mood and feel. For his opening statement, Maguire asserts that he is “no longer burdened by youth”. However, across the baker’s dozen of tracks on Green and Gray we learn of many other anxieties running through his mind. Mortality, loss, and self-discovery are all referenced at various points.
Album highlight ‘Hair’ best exemplifies Maguire’s cryptic lyrical style, as well as the album’s varying subject matter. Over a backdrop of delicate guitar measures, muted drums and ever building orchestral flourishes, his voice is more subdued than ever on the refrain:
“I feel some hair that’s hanging off of me,
It’s not mine nor do I want it to be,
I will pull for you if that’s what you want me to do,
But I like to walk fast and I demand you allow me to”
Stylistically, Green and Gray has a lot to offer, too. Frantic folk-punk barn-burner ‘On a Bigger Screen’ follows ‘Firewood’ and the equally measured ‘Your Performance’. Album teaser tracks ‘The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller’ and ‘Bruxist Grin’ are, respectively, a contorted, fuzzed out, surrealist character study (“Na na na na na na na na na na na/Steven, tell me ’bout your great grandmother”) and an Oasis meets Nirvana, psychedelic grunge reflection on Maguire’s first ever panic attack (“A beautiful view and your stomach is in your throat”).
Green and Gray feels at times like a summary of the band’s career to date. From the bedroom, lo-fi folk to the loud, kicking fuzz-punk, to the increasingly dexterous moments on all albums hitherto, Green and Gray is Pile’s best attempt to date at making sense of not just their varied influences and sonic elements, but also their place in the music scene. This record is the closest they have come to marrying all these parts. Yet, somehow, it’s still more of what we have come to expect from the band since their third album Dripping. Good, honest, solid work.