Wild Pink’s new album A Billion Little Lights opens up and doesn’t let go. The opener “Wind Like a Train” starts with a kinetic synth part and keeps adding layers and layers of instruments, evoking everything from ambient to punk to indie to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys in the process. Vocalist and principal songwriter John Ross offers some evocative metaphors upfront but ends up spending most of the song repeating, “I’ve got your back. I’ve got your back.”
Before you notice it, though, “The Wind Was Like a Train” has begun to fade, and the acoustic guitar and vibes for the second track, “Bigger Than Christmas”, have already introduced themselves. Ross has already snuck in a Pogues reference. As that song’s strings seem to begin to build to something, a drum kit inserts itself with a deceptively dancey beat, and the next track, “The Shining But Tropical”, has begun. So begins the best album of Wild Pink’s career, A Billion Little Lights. It finds the group expanding their quirky approach to indie rock to include all the bells and whistles.
This is Wild Pink’s third album. The 2017 self-titled debut Wild Pink was a quirky, indie singer-songwriter record. It sounded like something from Brooklyn in the 2010s, which it was. Many people compared it to early Death Cab for Cutie, which makes sense, as long as you add space for Ross’ exceptionally quirky lyrics. Here’s a notorious example: “The Redskins hate the Cowboys, cause Kennedy died in Dallas.” Overall, it was a good record full of ruminative guitar and exciting turns of phrase.
2018 brought the sophomore record Yolk in the Fur and some changes in their sound. It was bigger, more inclusive, more likely to base a song’s mood around a synth pad than an electric guitar. The first half of Yolk in the Fur is gripping. It’ll sometimes remind you of the best of the Meat Puppets for a second and then quickly turn to evoke Death Cab again, and then maybe a little late-period Wilco will pop up in the sneaky guitar theatrics. The second half seems to drop off a bit in mood and sag in the pace. The songs are still there, but there’s a feeling they just need something.
With A Billion Little Lights, Ross took his inclusive approach for Yolk in the Fur to another level. Ross allowed himself a lot more time to tinker with the songs at home, and it shows. A track like “Family Friends”, with its quirky lyrics about familial love, would be good enough stripped down. But Ross offers some small production treat at every turn, whether it’s a small bell part buried in the mix or a single well-placed tambourine shake. The whole album offers itself up in this manner, even on deceptively simple songs like “Pacific City”, where wonderfully placed synth pads add atmosphere to the verses or the way the cymbals wash over the chorus so perfectly.
On the night of A Billion Little Lights release, Wild Pink hosted a live-stream on Bandcamp, playing the entire album from top to bottom acoustically. Without all the lush of the production, the songs are still superb. Ross’ well-placed lyrics still hit when they need to hit, but the songs, played in this style, wouldn’t stand out much in the crowded indie rock world. We would miss the leftfield house synths in the bridge of “The Shining But Tropical”, the deep puffs of a bassline in “You Can Have It Back”, that weird vocal glitch at the beginning of “Amalfi”. All the tinkering Ross does at home has done it for Wild Pink. We hope he keeps it up.