It’s safe to say Pygmy Lush has figured things out. The band has been bouncing between full-throated post-hardcore and dark, hushed Americana since it started recording in the mid-2000s, and that jarring duality continued into 2009’s split LP with D.C.’s Turboslut. But Old Friends, Pygmy Lush’s third full-length album, implies that the days of indecision might be over. It tilts decidedly toward folk, but it still feels like a synthesis of its antecedents.
Though there’s nothing inherently revolutionary about that kind of process (see Neil Young, Uncle Tupelo, etc.), the Pygmy Lush version is unexpectedly satisfying. To anybody who hasn’t heard the Northern Virginia band before, Old Friends might not immediately sound like the work of former members of Pg. 99, Mannequin, and Haram. But Old Friends nonetheless communicates that these dudes have traveled hard to get where they’re at. As on 2008’s Mount Hope, the producer is Kurt Ballou, guitarist for Converge—a band that has made a different pact with noise. They’re meant for each other.
And what have they found? Melodies and harmonies—lots more than they rightfully should have, considering that singer Chris Taylor, in Pygmy Lush’s quieter songs to date, has sounded like he’s half-talking at the bottom of a swimming pool. Sure, the vocals on Old Friends aren’t necessarily mixed for clarity (there’s usually some compression or echo), and there aren’t many traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. But the tunes themselves are either hummable, rich with voices, or both.
And thematically, Old Friends isn’t 100 percent bummer. Although “Yellow Hall” starts the album with back-country menace, there are threads of hope throughout the first six songs—or what probably would be Side 1 if this was the ’70s record that it sometimes strives to be. Even the minor-key “In a Well,” which initially sounds like a lament, ends with the advice “Start climbing.” The delicate “Good Dirt” is about a faltering relationship that can still grow, and “Night at the Johnstown Flood,” with its Galaxie 500 bittersweetness, isn’t totally about loss.
Emptiness is all over Side 2, however, and fans of all those heavy-hearted Canadian indie bands will immediately understand the tone of “A Weird Glow,” “Pals,” “January Song,” and others. It’s not dread and it’s not resignation; it’s something slightly more productive. The crisp, cool “Admit” doesn’t really answer what happened to the drab relationship that it describes, but Taylor sings “we did well not to listen” at the end, as if he’s floating out of the living room where love dissolved into inertia. If it’s not daring, it’s at least achy and pretty.
It’s important that the word “pretty” even applies here. In the end, Old Friends exudes the kind of control that comes from messing around with harsh, abrasive things and learning where they have their place. Right now Pygmy Lush is all about polish, the kind that appears without shortcuts.
Why Should I Get Used to It Joe Lally Dischord/Tolotta
Noise isn’t even much of a choice for Joe Lally anymore. A lot has changed since his last solo album, but one thing is clear: He prefers to make intimate, purposeful records. Anybody waiting for an explosion—or even a thunderclap—will have to be satisfied with pervasive warmth. Once a bassist, always a bassist.
Lally’s new disc, Why Should I Get Used To It, generally picks up where 2006’s There to Here and 2007’s Nothing Is Underrated left off, with unfussy post-punk sonics, a close-up production aesthetic, and his singular, nearly deadpan vocals. Even though the Fugazi member moved to Rome and assembled a semi-permanent lineup of unheralded locals to play with him, his artistic core hasn’t shifted: He draws relaxed, complementary performances from guitarist Elisa Abela and drummer Emanuele “Lele” Tomasi (another drummer, Fabio Chinca, has since taken over). The D.C. punk luminaries who populated Lally’s other discs are nowhere to be found, although one local, T.J. Lipple, did the mastering.
But all things considered, Why Should I Get Used To It is incrementally edgier than its predecessors, either because Lally bumps up the rhythms or turns up the guitar: Openers “What Makes You” and “Nothing to Lose” operate with a stout groove and a gallop, respectively; the instrumental “Ken-Gar” is a too-short burner; the slow “Let It Burn” has some Fugazi clang; and “Coral and Starfish”—despite its somewhat clumsy, historical, nuclear-weapons-age lyrics—has an appropriate ’70s CBGB vibe. His bandmates seem to be nudging him a little, too.
The final two tracks point toward what the fully ex-pat version of Lally might sound like, once he gets around to recording again. The pleasantly meandering, cello-adorned “Ministry of the Interior” and the minimally funky “Last of the Civilized” are more philosophical and meditative than their predecessors on the album, and they both put Lally’s measured-but-critical voice on display. It’s easy to imagine them flowing from a dark Roman practice space out into the hot midday sun, carrying the quietly confident energy of a punker who knows exactly who he is.
Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker Des Ark Lovitt
Aimée Argote of Des Ark is responsible for some of the vocal harmonies and piano-playing on Old Friends, and although she’s never called the D.C. area home, she has a tight relationship with Pygmy Lush and shares its label (Arlington’s Lovitt). And her new record, Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker, makes similarly successful decisions about the lessons of noise and the satisfaction of melody. Back in the day, she was in the queer-punk scene. Now she’s got songs that plainly yearn for a wide audience.
Argote’s only other proper album—2005’s Loose Lips Sink Ships—had some uneven songwriting and some casual production by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. The band was a duo then, but drummer Tim Herzog (also Argote’s boyfriend at one point) moved on after the album was released. Since then, Des Ark has been whomever Argote can assemble; for Don’t Rock the Boat, it was guitarist Noah Howard and drummer Ashley Arnwine.
Amid all that upheaval, Argote became a more expressive singer and a more refined guitarist. Her lyrics are still perfectly prickly, but she’s learned to trust herself when her melodic instincts veer heavily toward the pretty or the dramatic. (Part of the fun is trying to pinpoint whom, exactly, she sounds like.) She says this album is the first time that she’s been able to recreate all the sounds in her head.
Some of that success comes from producer Jonathan Fuller, who recorded many of the tracks at Black Iris Music in Richmond. He was guitarist for defunct post-hardcore band Engine Down, and he clearly understands what to nurture in a one-time punker. (Converge’s Ballou recorded a few songs, too, at his studio in Salem, Mass.)
The album’s big gestures begin almost immediately: “My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’Mon Jump on It)” ebbs and flows on handclaps, acoustic guitar harmonics, and a steady kickdrum as Argote’s vocal mixes coyness and smokiness. The fact that the song is about a broken, drug-addled woman makes it even more intense; at the climax, the voices in her head tell her “I’d love to keep on loving you, my dear, but you’re already dead.”
That moment could’ve been weirdly gooey or overtly commercial, but Argote’s chops are right for it. On the other occasions when songs markedly ascend or accelerate, she retains just the right amount of command: The too-brief smalltown-angst study “Bonne Chance Asshole” feels like a career highlight, and the breakup tune “FTW Y’all !!!” (which is probably about Herzog) is a lesson in loud/quiet/loud nuance. “Ashley’s Song,” meanwhile, is relatively overdone, but considering its story of sexual turmoil (rape, it seems), the melodrama is appropriate.
Elsewhere, Argote tries to make sense of current flames—women, men, maybe fictional, maybe not. And she sometimes sings in an affected way to emphasize the narrative; not everybody will find it endearing, but at least she’s doing it for a reason. It’s because some lines can’t work without emotional framing: “When I look at the body of a man, what I see is a stockpiling of weaponry,” she sings with a near lilt at the end of “Girls Get Ruff,” and the delivery makes the line sympathetic.
On the pastoral, slightly symphonic album-ender “Two Hearts Are Better Than One,” which is obviously more sapphic than hetero, the words and melody rise and fall in nearly abstract ways. It’s classically feminine, it’s indulgent, and Argote knows it. But why shouldn’t she be the one who gets it right?