Pianos Become the Teeth sound exhausted on Keep You. As well they should. For the better part of a decade, they’ve created music of extreme emotional and physical engagement, music tagged as “post-hardcore” because of the reverberating guitars and five-minute song lengths or “screamo” by the less self-conscious. Their 2009 debut Old Pride had a recording of Kyle Durfey’s mother describing the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis on her husband, a perversely calm moment because words were being spoken instead of yelled. Longevity isn’t expected out of the bands or the people in it, and there are an equal number of former and current members of Pianos Become the Teeth. Several moonlight with Geoff Rickly’s hyperbolic, great punk rock and roll swindle United Nations; by comparison, that’s a fun band. And now here’s Keep You, the result of Pianos Become the Teeth spending the past three years switching labels and drastically reconfiguring their sound, consequently putting everything at risk. You will feel the burn.
Keep You is Pianos’ first album for punk heavyweight Epitaph, which likely means it will be an introduction for many. If that’s your situation, take a few listens to their previous highlights and know going in to Keep You that Durfey does not scream once. This is important for several reasons, the least of which is that a lot of their older fans are pissed. Because it turns out that he can actually sing, and in a rich, resonant register rarely heard in indie rock and often associated with flannel-clad he-men of various stripes. But these are lyrics that require subtlety and range, as Keep You edges towards acceptance following the four stages of grieving that preceded it. During opener “Ripple Water Shine”, Durfey takes himself to task—“I’m still always slowly waiting for what follows/For what I’ve learned about being so defined by someone dying,” and going forward, he does raise his voice, but it never cracks. In this music, you process and tolerate your inner turmoil rather than drowning it out.
Meanwhile, here’s drummer David Haik performing some of Pianos’ older material. He doesn’t do that either on Keep You; he’s just as active and dexterous, but nowhere near as loud, darting around “Repine” and “Ripple Water Shine”, reminding the listener of the herculean effort they’re putting forward to repress their rage and how that could fail them; they probably won’t lash out, but they might. And these are guitarists who haven’t lost their technical prowess either, they just don’t have to play as fast or loud—Chad McDonald and Mike York rely on fingerpicked patterns and blunt-force chording to alternately constrict, mesmerize, soothe and bludgeon.
So, to recap—no screaming, musicians of conservatory-level aptitude practicing extreme restraint, and producer Will Yip doing his best Peter Katis impersonation, keeping the vocals and percussion at the fore to establish intimacy in an otherwise hall-filling sound. Maybe Pianos Become the Teeth aspire to be the post-hardcore National? It’s not far-fetched when you listen back to the outsized, half-sung “Hiding”, which was included on a split 7” with Touché Amoré, who would later cover “Available”. So Keep You is a progression more than a clean break, and the best way to put yourself at the forefront of post-hardcore these days is to prove that you’re kinda done with it. If Keep You was intended as their way of separating themselves from Touché Amoré and La Dispute, they’ve succeeded. But they’re now just parallel to each other.
Pianos’ craft is certainly at the level of Is Survived By and Rooms of the House, which already feel like future standards, but Keep You doesn’t have the same populist appeal. Everything here will bring a circle pit to a dead halt, while melodic hooks and catharsis are scarce. Moreover, Durfey isn’t a storyteller like La Dispute’s Jordan Dreyer, nor does he speak in rallying cries like Touché Amoré’s Jeremy Bolm. Keep You’s lyricism bears a greater similarity to early Mark Kozelek, captivating in its evocative detail and conversely, prone to detail so personal, it’s intimidating. Both aspects are prevalent during the stunning postmortem of “April”, where Durfey drinks from a tin mug with an engraved date and even he’s unsure of its meaning—“What happened 7/31/76 that made them etch your name and the date?/ What’d I miss? It was a Saturday”. Even the person it’s addressed to is unclear—“I got your picture sitting on the sink…Water dripped and hit your cheek in the right spot/ It ruined my week, when I just wanted to wash the filth off.”
Emotionally pulverizing moments like these are so common throughout Keep You that it becomes something close to critic-proof. It’s certainly got its musical shortcomings, but they that shrink in light of its potential to level those who can get past them. Whenever Durfey’s lyrics get too insular, there’s the recognition that by giving so much of himself, the best response is to give right back. Only Durfey and his family know the stories behind lines like, “I’ve never had that old Ed size/ I’ve never had Robert’s prison guard skin”, and, “How odd life would be if you had made it from Elmira to Kansas City/ Instead you cried the whole way, punching the wheel home.” But you can relate if there are people in your past have been reduced to physical signifiers and the geographic signifiers are only relevant in your ability to understand the scale between them, of leaving a suburb for the “big city” and being paralyzed with fear.
When it seems like Keep You’s achromatic desolation is too unrelenting, you catch a reference to memories formed in places like Arcade, New York and Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania. The latter is a town of less than 500 near the Maryland border; I’m guessing you’ve never been because damn near no one has. But if you’ve ever driven through anywhere in the rural mid-Atlantic, particularly during this time of the year, you might recognize the ache and strange hope in the barren trees, endless fields and rundown building showing some kind of resilience in the middle of nowhere. It’s bleak and beautiful in the same way Keep You is, and it gives a lot provided you put your share of effort into it. And so you’ll probably feel exhausted after listening to Keep You; as well you should.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1s6CSvg