Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Great Big Pile of Leaves return after eight years with a fantastic and instantly recognisable third record

Brooklyn-based indie rock trio A Great Big Pile of Leaves are back after an eight-year hiatus with their third studio LP, ‘Pono.’ It’s a laidback love letter that drips with an undeniable nonchalance. But beneath the calm surface there’s an undertow of heartfelt poetry and instrumentals that hark back to their stylistic roots, making this record a real powerhouse. 

This is an album that takes all the best parts of their previous releases without sounding like a cut-and-pasted repeat. Of course, a release that draws on their established sound like this may be critiqued as pandering or unoriginal, especially considering the intervening years between this and their last release, ‘You’re Always on My Mind.’ But they prove there’s no need to change a tried and tested formula that produces such enjoyable music.

From the first track, ‘Yesterday’s Clothes’, you’re greeted by a brief introduction of lo-fi guitars before being gently pushed into the song. You’re instantly put at ease by breezy guitars and hypnotic vocals that melt into the instrumentals to form a fantastic opening track, establishing the mood and the themes of the entire album. The word ‘reminisce’ comes to mind as lead vocalist Pete Weiland sings “We'll be waking up in yesterday's clothes /With sand still stuck between our toes” on the chorus. It’s mellow and charming, with a general sentiment that could be described as sombre if it wasn’t for the whimsy of it all. The song is an undeniable summer anthem, with lyrics that mention “Summer waves”“Summer heat” and “Summer shade”, alongside a number of less on the nose experiences from smelling “like sunscreen” to burning your “feet waiting for ice cream.” 

Track two, ‘Hit Reset’, is a pluckier, bouncier song, with bigger choruses and multi-layered instrumentals. While the vocals still have that soft, dreamy quality, the guitar work on ‘Hit Reset’ nods to the emo influences which can be found on their debut album ‘Have You Seen My Prefrontal Cortex?’ Once again, it feels as if Weiland is a storyteller as he sings of “Cruising around /Dodging potholes in the ground” and “Picking up speed /Weaving through cars in the street.” 

The first single to be released from the album, ‘Beat Up Shoes’, boasts thoroughly defined riffs and epic drumbeats. ‘Beat Up Shoes’ shrugs off some of the previous dreaminess but it will still have you tapping your foot as you lose yourself in it. 

‘Waiting For Your Love’ has a more mature sound and one which is slightly melancholy without losing the chilled vibes that define A Great Big Pile of Leaves. It’s a sweeping track that teeters on the edge of anxiety but remains comforting in a relatable way as the lyrics recount the tale of an awkward, will-they-won’t-they romance. The group manage to find the perfect balance of personal but understandable lyricism.

‘Halloween’, draws upon the seasonal nostalgia and visual storytelling that is present in ‘Yesterday’s Clothes.’ Weiland uses vivid imagery of “Crunching through the red and yellow leaves” but also takes listeners on a fantastical journey, singing “All the creatures come out.” The song swells to its emotional peak at its chorus: “When you and I are caught in the middle /And the crowd falls out of sight /When you and I are caught in the middle /We can pretend for the night.” There’s a touching, coming-of-age aspect to the song but it doesn’t lack maturity or feel derivative.

Track six, ‘Kitchen Concert’ puts the rock into indie rock, with guitar chords that punctuate the chorus and the occasional well-placed cymbal crash. Perhaps this punchier, rockier sound is fitting considering the concert narrative it accompanies. The next track ‘Swimmer’ is similarly upbeat, with drums dominating the wall of instrumentation. Both tracks are a sonic departure from those that can be found on the first half of the album, but they don’t feel incongruous.

‘Water Cycle’ maintains this sense of sonic brightness but draws more on the emo revival sound than any previous song, in both its instrumentation and vocal performance. It also manages to create a feeling of longing which is a recurring theme on the album. In the chorus, Weiland serenely sings “Swimming through this cloud looking for you /Moving slowly, but I'm drifting right back to you.

The penultimate track, ‘Writing Utensils’ is a hazy number, with a clear shoegaze influence on the guitars especially. The band creates fantastic walls of sound with droning guitars and melting vocals. It’s warm, fuzzy, and slightly indiscernible in the best way possible. Once again, A Great Big Pile of Leaves recall their earlier nonchalance as the album draws to a steady close.

The final song on the record, ‘Simple Pleasures’, is a fitting farewell to the listener. It is a track that, in places, feels grand and spacious without feeling arrogant. It truly feels like something you could lose yourself in before it comes to a clean and somewhat abrupt end. On a sonic, thematic, and tonal level, ‘Simple Pleasures’ is the perfect close to such an album.

Overall, ‘Pono’ is a triumphant return for A Great Big Pile of Leaves. While Pitchfork somewhat condescendingly said it “picks up right where they left off”, for a band as consistently enjoyable as A Great Big Pile of Leaves, I think that’s something to be excited about.

Morgan Springer 

Image: A Great Big Pile of Leaves ‘Pono’ Official Album Cover 

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