“It’s not so bad to restart” is a line that hangs over Stranger to the Pain, the new album from Bay Area foursome Pllush. The track is “Restart” and it punctuates the album like a whispered, but heart-felt manifesto. The band have been playing together for some time now, for three years they’ve been writing and performing as a unit. It was relatively recent that they added an ‘l’ to their name – and a kind of recalibration took shape. In one sense a debut, in another sense a fortified reiteration of previous intention, here’s an album that’s got a lot going on.
When discussing tunes like those assembled here, it’s easy to fall into the broad strokes of shoe-gazing / star-gazing dream pop. In the conventional sense Pllush have produced an album that delivers on expectations of a scene. On first glance the tone of these songs is youthful, ethereal, defiant. However, the substance that lurks in the lyrical content provides a worldview of remarkable substance. The instrumental arrangements distinguish the band as something other, something better. The maturity of scope, and breadth of vision is refreshing.
Singer/guitarist Karli Helm brings a kind of emotional accountability to the process. When she sings she opens herself with honesty. It’s hard to say what she holds back. There’s a contrivance in all art, but here the energy of what happens between disciplines is what unfolds. The band develop textures – they expand on already large-scale visions, and they share disarming moments with a nuanced strength. Tracks like “Blue Room”, “Sleeper Cab” and “Big Train” have intimate origins, but they swell to roof-raising proportions. It’s the almost-too-raw lyrics that remind you of the human scale at the core of this unusual universe. Let’s just pause for a moment on “Sleeper Cab”… the keyboard phrasing shimmers; alternating strength and vulnerability. A highpoint of the album.
The unassuming atmosphere of Stranger to the Pain is misleading. The lack of pretense exhibited during some of the more confessional moments creates an immediacy in the relationship between Pllush and their audience. Since this stuff is so easy to listen to, so disarming in it’s approach, you’d be forgiven for thinking no demands will be placed on the listener. But this isn’t all spoon-fed emotion, or sweet reflections on the typical issues. A simple line like “I’m walking with my eyes” from “3.45” develops into a koan-like address of a sense, not a concrete reality. And the music, also seemingly simple, reflects narrative progression with increasingly complex percussive patterns. Before you know it you’ve been swept away into a disorientating depth. The spaced-out vocal tracking on this song feels a lot like heaven will feel, if heaven is real. Wait, this song is better than heaven – because we know it’s real. And the cacophony of guitars and splashed cymbals that crescendo to close are fucking monumental.
Sincerity, the avoidance of cliché, and the delivery of resonating truths – that’s what Pllush have accomplished with Stranger to the Pain. Of course, no one is stranger to pain, and we all know suffering. However, it’s the limits of empathy, and the longing to correct connections that the band articulate so well. All the textures, all the layered meanings of this album – they elevate humanity to something better than it may be in reality. We need stuff like this at the moment. Send Pllush money and nice things.