Album Review: Pill - Soft Hell
Brooklyn’s Pill are the practically indefinable band that seem to be the distillation of living amidst the melting pot of New York in the current era. There is plenty of New York music history in their sound, from the 80s no wave of Sonic Youth up to the whip-smart post punk of Parquet Courts, but there’s also sounds of jazz and blues tangled up in it. More notably, Pill’s music sounds like the city, and the varied lives lived within it, and they’ve recorded quite a portrait of it in their second full length, Soft Hell.
When discussing what the two simple words of the album’s title mean to each of them, Pill’s four members all seem to come at it from a different, but equally valid, perspective; it could refer to the “work-to-play” lifestyle of modern city dwellers, it could be a bondage reference, it could simply be a state of mind. This egalitarian approach is also how their music ends up sounding, the guitars, drums, bass and saxophone all seem to come at the songs from their own angle, collide in the middle and together form twisted, gnarled and python-like power punk songs. There’s rarely obvious choruses, instead Pill are more interested in following this mutual path that their instruments are carving out for them – and the expressive flourishes that spark along the way make Soft Hell a simmering and passionate listening experience.
Pill’s songs present perfectly scrappy and pulsating canvases for singer Veronica Torres’ tales from the underbelly, which veer from the acerbic to the vulnerable. Soft Hell is a missive from the heart of a city in the middle of a cultural and political war; it is a document of this struggle. The main feeling is the overwhelming surge that attacks from all directions – including internally. Pill’s more mid-tempo songs can be like walking along a bustling New York street, with hollers coming from all sides, strangers asking “what’s your name? What’s your sign?”, proclamations that “hell is the subway,” Hispanohpones provocatively asking “¿Te gusta? ¿Te gusta?”, unwanted attraction from curb-side lotharios saying “what a class-A specimen/ is that a wallet in your pocket?” Pill animate these urban tableaus perfectly: Andrew Spaulding’s drumming remains precise and busy like footsteps on concrete; Benjamin Jaffe’s saxophone is steamy and slinky, like heat or dust rising off the dirty tarmac; the guitars entwine like moments of connection or hatred shot in glances between strangers on the street; the seedy sexuality rings from Torres’ words.
Even when in a closed-off and personal setting, the energy and pervasive toughness of the city impacts the person at the centre of Torres’ lyrics. Opening track ‘A.I.Y.M?’ begins with the innocent “You're the poster on my teenage wall,” but quickly gets corrupted into the declaration “I’m going to grease you.” ‘Dark Glass’ finds our protagonist waking up with a headache in bed, surrounded by glass (“a permanent bunk mate”) before being assailed by the horror of reality going on outside the window. Paranoia pervades on ‘Double Think’, where she decides to “stay inside – get ahead,” but believes that people are listening through the thin walls, and ultimately spirals down into a repeated failure “forget to play it cool,” the sax and bass twisting together in a teasing backing. ‘Power Abuser’ is a fraught inner-monologue where Torres is questioning the actions of people all around – and herself (“Dictating whether my sexual behavior is a blessing or curse, blasphemy or divine”), and getting contorted into uncomfortable shape doing so, until she manages to straighten out her thoughts in a clear and concise message: “I JUST WANT A FAIR TRADE WITHOUT EXPLOITATION.”
Of course, this constant barrage of political and cultural emotion is exhausting – but that’s possibly the point. Living in 2018, especially in a place like New York, is a daily struggle. With so many different versions of “correct” thoughts and “acceptable” behaviour being professed and carried out everywhere all the time, there are moments every day when our bodies become tense and we want to fight against something we see or hear. Pill’s music is born in these moments and thrives on hashing them out in taut and tense, yet euphoric, rock songs. Soft Hell is not only a document of modern daily life, but a prescription for how to get through it: put your head down, grow a thick skin, work with like-minded people, talk about issues, stay strong, and speak up for what is right and fair – even if the people around you don’t seem prepared to listen, someone will hear it and connect to it.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 29th October 2018.