Lately, I’ve been feeling old. There are a host of the usual physical reasons, which I won’t bore you with. But mostly it’s due to the busy reappearance of the culture of my steadily vanishing youth, which is either coming back as nostalgic kitsch (the Smurfs movie,) historic milestones (the recent canonization of Pavement), or as respectable adult fodder (the new Earth record is streaming at the NPR website).
I was a freshman in college when Three Mile Pilot released their last full-length, Another Desert, Another Sea (Headhunter, 1997). To put it in an historical context, this was also the year I opened my first e-mail account. At the time, the band’s dark, dramatic sweep and instrumental restraint made it stand out from the indie rock scene’s loud, off-kilter guitar pop. Propelled by Pall Jenkins’ brooding baritone, here was music with narrative drive, equal parts Nick Cave and the Pixies, possessing an ambition and scope rarely heard in that shambolic era. Three Mile Pilot broke up that year as well, after a brief, unhappy alliance with the Geffen label. Jenkins, along with Tobias Nathaniel (who played piano on Another Desert), formed The Black Heart Procession, giving their gypsy, folk, and chamber-pop tendencies fuller shape. The band’s other two members, Armistead Burwell IV and Tom Zinser, eventually ended up in Pinback, where they dispensed haunted yet groove-heavy pop, some of which was pretty remarkable.
Now, more than a decade later, the trio’s reformed. And despite the years, not a whole lot’s changed. Energy was never these guys’ forte – their songs unspool at their own stately, deliberate pace. Tracks like “Grey Clouds” employ the band’s signature swaying rhythms, eerie keyboards, and cleanly played guitar to create an atmosphere of faded minor-key elegance, while Jenkins and Burwell’s vocals circle each other like two rival predators, debating whether they should team up or fight to the death. It’s odd, however, to hear echoes of the members’ subsequent bands crop up in Three Mile Pilot, making the temporal nature of this record’s title a fitting one. “Still Alive” has the seasick momentum of a Pinback jam, while album closer “The Premonition” has the orchestral, elegiac feel of a vintage Black Heart ballad. Other songs blend the two strains more seamlessly, particularly the charging “Same Mistake” and the stuttering melancholy of “What I Lose.”
One thing age’s wisdom has bestowed on the group is a slightly keener ear for pop dynamics. While in the past the band’s more somber leanings could devolve into a plodding dirge, here they’re careful to add a keyboard flourish or swooping backup vocals in order to prevent things from getting bogged down. At their best, Three Mile Pilot crafts considered yet expansive rock carrying an unexpected sinister undertow. This was true in 1997, and still holds today.
Three Mile Pilot’s first record in 13 years doesn’t represent a nostalgia trip, nor will it push for a substantive rethinking of the band’s place in (indie) rock history. Instead, it’ll please the old fans who remain, while quietly making some new ones. In a musical landscape marked by transformation and trends, there’s something to be said for straight persistence.Visit: Three Mile Pilot | Temporary Residence Limited
Purchase: Insound | eMusic