I don’t like it any more than you do. For one reason or another, the massive, ugly beast called The Middle just gets the best of us. For the most part, music is not sacrosanct. Yes, there are a few resilient souls — Bob Dylan seems to have found a rare ladder when The Middle started coming in his direction. But contrary to what we, the self-appointed Keepers of the Secret, who know that the state of things is not Creed and Nelly, for some bands, being in the middle would be quite nice-maybe even like, well, being on top.
I am not saying that our music heroes are striving for Billboard recognition. I can only guess. But I will say that, after listening to We are the only Friends We Have, Boston’s Piebald doesn’t seem to have the anecdote to the slippery little virus. With their latest release on Big Wheel Recreation, the seminally happy-go-lucky Piebald has smoothed out their sound, fixed that off-kilter wheel that previously meant for unpredictable and wonderfully choppy bumps in tempo, and has released a record that is less edgy and more…adorable, completing their transition from their days as an energetic, discordant (and misguided) straight-edge band.
Their new, adorable sound is not to say that they’ve made a huge departure. They’ve always been light-hearted folk. But with this latest release, coming after a break-up turned hiatus that lasted for one year, they’ve taken their innate quirkiness and spit out a pleasantly goofy, mischievously glib and benignly nice record.
Don’t get me wrong. I may be a jaded misanthrope, but I recognize feel-good music when I hear it. And that has, for me, always been the purpose of Piebald anyway. The opening track, “King of the Road,” highlights the facetious tone that pervades the record. About their infamous broken down “short bus,” Shettel sings, “We keep your door like it’s a postcard from camp/Maybe you’re in auto heaven/Oh man I really hope so.” Piebald has maintained their vision of using every chance they get to create anthems, their hooks complimented best by foot-stomping singalongs. And, coupled with exact-to-the-millisecond drums and stop and go guitars, the record is filled with energy.
Whereas before the band kept things interesting with surprising tempo changes and humorous lyrics, the focus now seems to be on creating infectious melodies and, well, humorous lyrics. The lyrics waver between witty and trite to irreverent and inane. “Downtown looks like don’t own if you look at it right,” sings Shettel in “Just a Simple Plan,” which at first you think is clever but then, because it sorta does look like don’t own, if you look at it right, but then you realize it doesn’t make much sense after all. Therein lies the band’s charm. But with fortune-cookie trite offerings like “If you bore then you must be boring, too” and “Life is what happens when we’re making plans,” it’d be a sin to take them too seriously.
With 44 minutes of infectious melodies, drums that smack in tandem with choppy chord changes, what’s really smooth about this record is the production. Producer Paul G. Kolderie, made famous working with Radiohead and the Pixies, among others, has opened up a new arena of sounds and techniques for Piebald, throwing a thick layer of varnish over any sharp edges and freeing them from the bare-bones production of their impecunious hardcore days. This includes using of a group of first-graders singing an introduction, highlighting a song with the ever-popular sound of synthesized wind in space, and incorporating pianos and horns.
Piebald, making the most of their journey to the middle, are still charming little bastards, but now they come all rolled up in a shining, glisteningly smooth hi-fi package. And they’re just in time for the recent emergence of interest from the mainstream listeners and music industry. They still have warm, upbeat guitars, and a tone that incites toe-tapping as opposed to floorpunching. But, even with their new glossiness, they haven’t lost all integrity-they’re football fields away from saying anything as insulting as “Live right now/Just be yourself/It doesn’t matter if that’s good enough/For someone else”- lyrics from a song with a stunningly apropos title from a band whose slope was steep and whose period of making valid songs was brief.