The Pills
A Fistful Of Pills
(Primary Voltage)

The Pills have now put out three albums, and about the only area in which they haven't steadily improved is album cover design, and I may be biased, since I thought the young woman on the cover of their debut was ultracute. Otherwise, The Pills have done what bands are supposed to do -- get better. As the band's songs get stronger and more sophisticated, the punky mod energy that they unleashed on their debut is still in plentiful supply. The Pills now harness that energy so that it serves the songs without overwhelming them.

So you end up with a disc that can be favorably compared to everything from early Elvis Costello & the Attractions to the poppier stuff on Nuggets to The Undertones to The Smugglers -- The Pills are that catchy, crackling and clever. Exhibit A is the riff ridden "Slam Book", with atypical screaming vocals and thick rhythm guitars panning all over the speakers. The verses are the structured sounds of things falling apart, while the bridge pulls things together with the majesty of Guided By Voices, leading into a chorus that is midway between Cheap Trick and The Young Fresh Fellows. (Of course, I don't mean that they sound exactly like any of these bands -- The Pills are comparable, not mere mimics).

Exhibit B is even better, and displays some of that sophistication I was talking about above. "Brand New Pair of Eyes" is a corker. This is a classic theme -- a guy telling his ex that she's made a mistake, and he's still the only one for her. Check out these clever observational lyrics: "Does he know about the secret spot between your shoulder blades/does he know to wrap his feet around your legs at night/does he know about your student loans/or the way your favorite rocking chair groans/as you rise to make the tea". The song also has a classic build up from throbbing mid-tempo groove to a blistering melodic guitar fueled chorus that shows an utter command of dynamics (the guitars dropping out as the title phrase is gently sung). Throw in the nifty keyboard dominated middle eight and a final chorus that has that extra bit of oomph to drive the song home...well, you have a goddamn great tune.

This track is equaled by the marvelous "Kissing the Dirt". The song starts off with an almost dub-like quality, with Corin Ashley playing deftly on the bass, and Dave Aaronoff providing multiple accents on the keyboards, including a cool psychedelic "Strawberry Fields"-like part near the end of the verse, that builds the bridge into the chorus. And the chorus provides a big time release, as a bed of acoustic guitars builds the melody into an exemplary pop-rock hook. By the end of the track, that hook is monolithic. The Pills other visits to the land of mellow don't venture out into such rocking extremes, but both the sweet "Almost Inman Square" (a Splitsville-worthy ballad) and "Rock and Roll Heart" (which does rock, but in an appropriately reserved way, with a great Beatleish touch at the end of the chorus) provide further evidence that The Pills have two ace songwriters (Ashley and guitarist David Thompson) who are not slaves to fast tempos.

The creativity on display here makes me think that The Pills are on par with so much of the wonderful music (incorrectly tagged as New Wave, back in the day) of the early-‘80s, where so many great bands, from The Undertones to The Boomtown Rats, et al., accented their rock with other styles. Of course, sometimes it's their jagged catchy riffs that evoke that era -- for example, the dual guitar work on "Fighting Words" is reminiscent of early Joe Jackson and the best of 999.

Topping it all off is a the crisp sound of the record -- the band and Roger Lavallee handled the production chores quite well. (Kudos to Lavallee for his work on the Marxaphone too, though I don't have the slightest clue what that is). This record shows how maturity is not a dirty word, particularly when a band isn't wussing out. In addition to the aforementioned Splitsville and The Undertones, you can also compare this record favorably to bands such as Supergrass and The Wonder Stuff. The Pills might not quite be at that level, but, if not, they are really close, which is saying a lot.


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