It’s unfortunate, but very few bands can retain their original passion and vigor over the course of a few releases. Sure, there’s the occasional act with a string of striking records, but generally, it’s a downhill race — unless there’s a pointed shift that recapitalizes on the band’s core strengths. It’s rare, but it happens, and lately, these shifts involve keyboards. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Oakland, California’s Jim Yoshii Pile-Up, whose third full-length, the keys-free Picks Us Apart, re-imagines the band as Ben Gibbard’s more fucked-up and more talented, soft-spoken little brother.
More fucked-up? Let me explain: Aside from their press release stating the record’s intent as a chronicle of depression, the record has occasional backing vocals by Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, to whom the band’s morose tone is akin. An early Jim Yoshii tour with Xiu Xiu lead to an Insound split EP. There, singer Paul Gonzenbach bared his soul while gnashing his teeth; songs were pointedly spiteful while retaining a dramatic and sad sensibility. Here he’s generally more subdued, as if he’s growing content with his own desperation and sadness. “Heart My Home” and “Hall Clocks” delve into soft lullabies, while overall, Gonzenbach’s delivery smacks of numerous rounds of antidepressants. You can easily visualize empty packets of Zoloft sitting on the amps.
Gonzenbach is at times quite straightforward lyrically. There’s a focus on turning screws into others (“A Toast to the Happy Couple”) with standard, redundant bass and languid drumming, often while remaining within standard verse-chorus-verse constructs as well as relatively archetypal pop harmonies. But the real highlight here is Gonzenbach’s lyrical and vocal prowess. “Jailhouse Rock” in particular spotlights his vocal punch, which nails the quietly desperate yearning that launched thousands of Smiths fans into melancholy.
The Jim Yoshii Pile Up’s ultimate shift is into the mid-tempo ranges where bands like Death Cab for Cutie have cozied up. This is perhaps surprising, but not a total shocker considering the occasional tender leanings of their early work. Yet they avoid the emo drawbacks, coming across as quite sincere with these bare-bones confessions — which, when looking at their contemporaries, is something of a feat.