Pile, the new album from Austin's A Giant Dog, can remind us of other moments in rock music, but this is not revivalism. Instead, it reshapes those pasts into the band's own present.
On Pile, A Giant Dog's newest record (and first for Merge Records), the Austin band doesn't waste a lot of time. The quietly operatic (and eponymous) intro track suggests that you should get your breath now because this group is about to take off at a dead sprint. For the next 14 tracks, A Giant Dog delivers a kind of timeless rock 'n' roll zeal that's equal parts blistering underground fuzz and arena-sized shining swagger (so part Oblivians, part T. Rex).
With all that seemingly familiar rock ethos, it's easy to miss just how much they play with and twist the expectations they lay out. "Creep" takes the piss out of a fleeting, very rock 'n roll obsession with death, as Sabrina Ellis shouts, "Watch a candle suffocate / Say what you feel is like empathy". You can almost hear the sneer as she directs this at someone to whom she has also said, "I love you, honey" and "Stay away from me". On "Hitchhike Love", the band pokes fun at the one-night stand song: "I know I can't do you wrong", Ellis belts out, "'cause I barely know your name". Then, on "Sleep When Dead", which rounds out the first quarter of the record, Ellis laments being unable to sleep or stay all the way awake, not thriving by burning the candle at both ends but, rather, "feeling like [she's] dying". Even "Sex & Drugs", despite its title and amphetamine piano chords, is about being "too old to die young". These songs all drain the romanticism out of that old sense of live-fast-die-young tied to rock 'n' roll. That fantasy is replaced with an edged humor and a scrappy sense of confrontation. This is music both in love with rock history and tired of its conceits.
And yet, nothing is quite that easy with A Giant Dog, since the album then turns to "& Rock & Roll", a laid-bare ode to the power of rock music. Some of that romanticism comes back in, but even as the band belts the song out, you can feel a slight sideways grin. Pile succeeds because it does this all the way through: it plays with old rock tropes; it plays with love of rock music; and, finally, it plays in a surprising breadth of sounds. "& Rock & Roll" shifts the sprint of those early songs into a Thin Lizzy strut. "Jizzney" slows down the tempo into gauzy jangle-pop, and the band sounds just as comfortable stretching out as it does tightening up. And even when they bed down in glitzy rock hooks, they still manage to move in all different directions. "King Queen" sounds like they pulled it from a diner jukebox, its tumbledown melody recalling Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You". From there, though, the angular hook and crashing drums of "I'll Come Crashing" could have come from a mid-90s Touch & Go release.
Pile, clearly, is an album that reminds us of other moments in rock music, but this is not revivalism. Instead, it reshapes those pasts into the band's own present. It helps that the band is just flat-out great. Ellis's vocals bellow out into all corners of these songs, strong yet just frayed enough at the edges to see the vulnerability under the sneer ("Creep"), the truth under the joke ("Too Much Makeup"), and the wound not fully scarred over ("I'll Come Crashing"). With her, Andrew Cashen and Andy Bauer seem to find endless variations on garage rock and glam rock hooks, pulling tight riffs out whenever they need them and pulling off a clear, tight back-and-forth rather than just layering power chords all over the track. Perhaps the secret weapon in these songs, though, is the rhythm section of Graham Low and Matthew Strmiska. Whereas other, lesser bands would have their bass and drums speed through songs on root notes and 4/4 snare snaps, these guys work a groove into these songs, shifting pace and tempo when needed, and they generally keep the energy up by relying on some finesse and subtlety under the band's natural speed.
But beyond just sounding great, Pile finds A Giant Dog carving out a curiously fresh approach to these rock 'n' roll tropes that keep coming up. It is not an album about escape, guitar and drums, or the body and/or booze as a vessel towards the abstract. This is an album that focuses heavily on the corporeal. "Too Much Makeup" is about dying, but it's not about what happens after; it's about how you look in the casket. In other places in the record, Ellis "can't even remember feeling young" and notices how "all [her] friends say [she] look[s] tired". There's definitely an anxiety over burning out here, over deaths of all kinds, but there's also an ownership of the body, a sense of working out not how to use music to get away from it all, but rather how to live in your own skin. Pile lives in that tension, and A Giant Dog pushes itself to deliver these songs with zealous energy, a mounting fight against burning out and for living in the meantime.