[11 August 2005]
While offering little in the way of songs or sonics, the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up’s Picks Us Apart may be of some value to those who suffer a certain degree of self-loathing but can’t quite handle the melodrama or haircuts of their younger sibling’s emo bands. An admittedly and intensely personal document of one band member’s struggle with mental illness and the suicide it almost induced, the record is most readily appreciable by anyone who finds that subject matter regrettably relatable. Although that’s hardly an endorsement for attempted suicide, as there’s absolutely nothing on the album worth almost killing yourself over.
Abysmally indie, Picks Us Apart does nothing to distinguish itself from its indistinguishable ilk. Droning dreck is only offset by the same omnipresent ‘80’s influences plaguing the contemporary soundscape from crusty punk rock record stores to suburban malls and on up to the second floor of Sak’s Fifth Avenue. Some songs still manage to succeed with this formula; “A Toast to the Happy Couple”, “Silver Sparkler”, and “R.E.V.U.L.S.I.O.N.” are all hummable enough even, if not quite catchy. Still these standouts rely entirely on pale Peter Hook-isms to sustain themselves. Upper registry bass notes ascend in defiance of martial beats suggesting forlorn longing in a way that sounds all too commonplace in a red hot radio summer flooded with new wave revivalists like the Bravery and the Killers.
The approach is not only unoriginal but ill-suited to the band’s previously demonstrated strengths. It’s Winter Here paired Paul Gonzenbach’s groaning intonations with suitably slowcore strumming and shoegazing excess. Homemade Drugs followed up with a shift away from instrumental indulgence and into contemplative dirges with just enough Tiny Telephone trickery to keep it alluring. Picks Us Apart divorces the band from both these styles in an attempt to rely entirely on hooks the band just can’t quite conjure. This misguided effort renders the album too straightforward to be intriguing and too blandly recorded to incite interest.
Thankfully Gonzenbach still manages to get in a good line or two. “A Toast to the Happy Couple” is a suicide note never sent that reads out a will in case another attempt goes “horribly well”. To his father he leaves a “lifeless handshake” while all he can offer to his mother “with her head to the wall” is that he “tried”. If that’s not affecting enough, Gonzenbach takes the voice of the father whose vigilant care kept him alive in “Silver Sparkler”, pleading “Son, tell us what to do / This isn’t only killing you.” He replies noting “They say rats flee from sinking ships / I think that you could learn something from rats / Ask them in your traps”. The imagery embellishing that interaction proves earnestly heartbreaking.
Unfortunately Gonzenbach tends to miss the mark as often as he makes it. This tendency is evident throughout the entirety of “Jailhouse Rock”. Cursed with a wince worthy attempt at irony for a title, the song aches its way through almost six minutes of metaphorical prison sketches that are even duller then they are dubious. Unwisely invoking the image of processed cheese, the song shares too many of that symbol’s inherent characteristics already.
Even when the lyrics are more overtly earnest and well written, the songs still suffer from a lack of conviction. Gonzenbach’s delivery is hardly emotive and renders any irony indiscernible from honesty. This sense of detachment worked well enough on earlier records bemoaning the low wages and high rents of the San Francisco Bay Area but here it obscures the agonizing origins of these songs. Without the benefit of a band bio or one-sheet it’s impossible to gauge just how close Gonzenbach came to ending it all or that he even bought a gun to get the deed done.
Set against a banal backdrop of underwhelming arrangements, the end result is bland but not necessarily unpleasant. Gonzenbach comes across sounding somewhat like a more amphibian version of Ben Gibbard’s teddy bear stuffed with velvet vocals and the band compliments that association. It’s tempting to derisively write them off as “Death Cab for Snoozing” or “Death Cab Off Duty” but neither one of these is entirely accurate. There are some good songs amidst all this and the band was most definitely not asleep at the wheel. If anything they were almost too intently focused on what direction they were taking. Their work suffers all the signs of overwrought and obsessive overexertion. The arrangements are too intricate to be passionate. The production is too immaculate to be interesting. The tones are too clean to suggest that something was ever actually amiss. Essentially the record sounds like it’s trying just way too hard to be liked. That itself may be the most readily apparent aspect of Gonzenbach’s internal anguish.
Anyone ever stuck in such a similar state should find this record engaging even if not exactly enjoyable. Acknowledging this, Grozenbach calls out to “the boys bleeding out on the sidewalk” with the consolation that they are “not the only ones.” It may provide some cold comfort to know that they are not indeed alone in their agony but without that eerie attraction to bottles, blades, or bullets and their promise of release, the album has nothing else to offer.