PILE- ‘Songs Known Together, Alone’

Pile are a rock band. They make rock music. Think Pixies or Polvo or Fugazi. Their last album was a winning combination of off-kilter rhythms, unique, unsettling quiets, and weird, wiry louds. But Pile began life as the solo project of singer-songwriter Rick Maguire. So, when the pandemic locked him and his band members in different places last year, it wasn’t unprecedented that Pile pare down again. What’s really come as a surprise though, is the end product of Maguire’s isolation.

‘Songs Known Together, Alone’ finds the frontman picking through his band’s entire back catalogue and revisiting, reflecting, and rewriting as he goes. In Maguire’s own words, it is “a collection of re-imagined versions of songs from previously released records, tracked live and alone.” In my own words, it is a smart, heartfelt, hypnotic effort, crackling with emotion and touched by magic. You might have heard these songs before, but you haven’t heard them like this. These are old songs, but this is a whole new record. A stunning record. It has absolutely stopped me in my tracks.

The first half of the album is performed on guitar and some kind of foot-pedal synthesizer that might just be of Maguire’s own invention- ‘Touched by Comfort’ (from 2015’s ‘You’re Better Than This’) is superbly slowed down while the circling, sparkling guitars some 90-seconds in lift me up, out of my chair and, thank god, out of my head. ‘I Don’t Want to Do This Anymore’ (from 2017’s ‘A Hairshirt of Purpose’) is extended from a sub-two-minute instrumental into a mesmerising, meandering, beautiful thing. And ‘Keep the Last Light On’ (from 2018’s ‘Odds and Ends’) unhooks Maguire’s voice from electric chords and lets it run loose through cloudy ambience. The second half of the album is performed on piano. ‘Hair’ (from 2019’s ‘Green and Gray’) is a pretty faithful, but very pretty adaptation, while ‘Build a Fire’ (from 2007’s ‘Demonstration’) has lovingly had all the lactic acid leeched out of its muscles. It stretches, it relaxes. And all of this was recorded live, in a barn in upstate New York, but it sounds neither loose nor far away. Instead, it sounds like Maguire could be playing in the very next room, and playing these songs the way they were always meant to be. 

The tight, knotty nature of Pile’s full band output can make me feel (in an admittedly compelling way) unsettled and tense. There is none of that here. Instead these ‘Songs Known Together…’ are subtle and tender and reassuring. Or maybe politely haunting. Either way, no amps are buzzing, no one is shouting. The hazy, constant quality of the synths makes me think of a comfort blanket, or of a safe space, or of sunsets, like the one on the front cover.

All that said, I don’t think you need any familiarity with the original tracks for all of this to work. During the quietest spaces of ‘Touched By Comfort’ it’s like being in a room while some natural born songwriter pulls a new tune out of thin air. You could play ‘Mama’s Lipstick’ to… well, you can probably guess. And the way Maguire’s voice, drenched in reverb, sometimes disappears into this music, would be compelling even if you’d never heard a rock band in your life. Sometimes it’s not even a voice at all, it becomes a whole new instrument. On the newly-combined ‘Rope’s Length/My Employer’ it initially sounds like Maguire is singing into a rotating fan, voice clipped and stuttering, before it disassembles completely, a robot chorus, static in the air. A whole new voice on a whole new record. Screw it, bring on more lockdowns, I want all my favourite bands to do this.

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