[1 September 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
Bottomless Pit bears more baggage from the past than probably any other underground act. For starters, there’s the shadow cast by its previous incarnation as Silkworm and the distinctive sound that the songwriting duo of Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett created for that could-have-been indie favorite. But the much heavier burden for Cohen and Midgett to bear has been the sad circumstance that led to the dissolution of their previous act and the founding of Bottomless Pit, which was the tragic car accident death of Silkworm drummer Michael Dahlquist in 2005. Indeed, it would’ve been hard to listen to Bottomless Pit without hearing Silkworm to begin with, but the songs and how they are heard can’t help but evoke strong memories and bittersweet nostalgia that go beyond the music itself.
It’s probably not quite fair to give Bottomless Pit a hearing on those terms, but there’s obviously the tendency to read too much into the quartet’s lyrics and musical approach because of the back story. Be it the end result of a natural progression that has come with age or a response that makes the best of an unforeseen and unfortunate state of affairs, Bottomless Pit’s second full-length Blood Under the Bridge features a more restrained and considered approach than Silkworm’s bruising aesthetic did. Known in the past for creating a ramshackle sound that played up the boozed-up, dive-bar side of indie rock, Cohen and Midgett have smoothed out the edges with Bottomless Pit, as if they’ve found a sense of calm from being worn-out and beat up as they’ve rolled with the punches all these years.
You can hear it on the stunning opening track, “Winterwind”, which buffs and polishes Silkworm’s abrasiveness into something pretty and engaging. Pacing itself with melodic, slip-sliding guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sonic Youth’s Murray Street or Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, the lead-off number sounds epic in an immediate way and sets a different kind of tone for the album to follow, one that holds your attention without getting in your face so much as Silkworm did in the past. And yet, there’s still enough of a rough-hewn feel to “Winterwind” to remind indie enthusiasts just where the song is coming from. With Midgett’s last words on it being “It’s a waste of time,” the vocals get across the sentiment of loss, but falling just on the graceful side of melancholy as they lead into a tasteful, tuneful guitar solo that carries the track to its conclusion.
Even the Silkworm-y indie-grunge numbers seem more direct than before, without the screwball embellishments and so many black humor asides. While Cohen’s deep, agitated voice can’t help but hearken back to Silkworm at its rowdiest and most playful, his offerings this time around seem upfront with their raw emotions, like on crunchy, power-chord rockers “38 Souls” and “Summerwind”. On the latter, Cohen seems like he’s made peace with whatever gnaws at him by repeating the refrain, “It’s not nothing I would do again,” and pairing it with other contemplative lines, the most poignant of which must be, “Even if we could not with our friends.” Playing it straight pretty much all the way through, Bottomless Pit gets across a resilient, perseverant attitude by coming up with a more consistent plan of attack. The leaner approach does flag a bit in the middle of the album with the instrumental interlude “Dixon” and the redundant “Kiss Them All”, but what’s most illuminating about Blood Under the Bridge is how Cohen and Midgett have learned how to focus and rein in their collective imagination over time.
The artistic payoff that goes with greater self-control and maturity comes through all the more clearly on the album’s quieter moments, delivered by Midgett. His sparse, spare “Rhinelander” is more gentle and delicate than you’d expect these heavyweights could get, mellow enough, in fact, to recall the Velvet Underground’s after-hours vibe for at least a little while. “Q.E.D.” reprises that thoughtful mood near the end of the album, catching Midgett in an existentialist moment, as he sings in a hushed voice, “Always shit to do / When I’m dead I will still have a list.”
So it’s almost impossible not to offer an armchair psychoanalysis of Blood Under the Bridge, but that’s because the album offers so much to chew on. In the end, the silver lining here is that Cohen and Midgett have gathered up enough followers who care enough about their music to give it the attention it deserves, and always has.