First Look: New Three Mile Pilot Album

 

 

The
Inevitable Past Is The Future Forgotten, out this week on Temporary Residence,
delivers the inevitable truth: the band that spawned Pinback and Black Heart
Procession was one of Amerindie’s greatest. As it turns out, it still is.

 

By John Schacht

 

This was going to be a much-scrutinized release no matter how
it turned out, because in the 13 years since Three Mile Pilot was last heard from
rumors of an imminent record circulated as regularly as the changing of the
calendar.  In addition, the two bands TMP
split into – Pinback and the Black Heart Procession – are inarguably more
focused than the original, and have remained viable
record-releasing-and-touring entities over that time-frame. So whenever the
rumor rolled around, the question arose: Why bother? Well, now that it’s finally
happened, the fourth full-length from the parent group emphasizes the
“inevitable” in its title because this is precisely the outcome you’d expect
when you merged the musical DNA of Pinback and Black Heart. Just about the only
question was going to be which band’s music the reformed TMP might tilt toward.
One sure thing, it least resembles the old TMP. That incarnation’s three
records varied enough that, even on the third, best and final pre-hiatus record
(1997’s Another Desert, Another Sea),
TMP often sounded like a band in search of an identity – or two, as it
subsequently turned out.

 

They have one now, though, and even if it’s a familiar one,
that doesn’t make The Inevitable Past an academic exercise at all. Trading in some of TMP’s adventurous forays and
punk underpinnings for bouncing-but-brooding grooves and firmer song
structures, the two principal songwriters and singers – Black Heart’s Pall A. Jenkins
and Pinback’s Armistead Burwell Smith IV – sound totally revitalized here: This
is either the best Pinback record since 2004’s Summer In Abaddon, or Jenkins’ best work since 2002’s Amore del Tropico. The inevitability of
the record’s sound also points to the unique musical personalities the two key
members of the trio – along with drummer Tom Zinser, the other original Pilot member
— have forged during TMP’s hiatus. But in recent years both offspring acts
have settled into comfort zones (or ruts, according to some), so you can argue
that The Inevitable Past may be just
the ass-kick both acts needed.

 

If there’s a winner in the “sounds more like” sweepstakes,
it’s Pinback. The majority of these dozen tracks pulse with the same sinewy
momentum as the best Pinback songs: “Still Alive,” “Days of Wrath,” and “What’s
In the Air” share thick bass lines that slither between Zinser’s kinetic beats,
helix-like guitar lines that wind in and out of the melodies and over dense
mists of organ and synth swaths, and vocals that fold back over each other so
often and create so many textures it’s hard to tell who’s singing lead or
harmony. Classic Pinback, in other words, only with the inimitable Jenkins out
front, who sounds far more assured as a singer here than he did in the first
TMP.  Of course, we’ve come to identify
Jenkins’ voice indelibly with the sinister Black Heart sound – as though he’d somehow
swallowed the eerie singing saw that followed him around on Black Heart’s 2 and 3. But the Pinback-tempo songs here find him tapping into a different,
almost up-beat range, and Smith’s intricate harmonies (often in near-falsetto)
provide marvelous leavening for the heaviness.

 

Still, a few songs sound more Black Heart than Pinback. “The
Threshold,” with its midnight stalker-blend of organ and piano, is one of them,
as is “One Falls Away,” whose deliberate 3/4-time and pizzicato strings make it
sound like a gothic Dance of the Opium Addicts. But even these tracks are tweaked
in some fundamental, if subtle, manner as Smith’s input re-tools their rhythmic
underpinning. “Battle”
opens like one of BHP’s jittery paranoid-rockers from The Spell – but Smith’s roiling bass and some Steve Nieve-like Farfisa
add a light relief element that The Spell lacked. Similarly, the marvelous headlong rush of “Same Mistake” trumps any
rocker in the Black Heart catalog and stands tall next to any of Pinback’s.  

 

Despite their fondness for different narrative devices, both
bands traffic in dark and brooding narrative fare as though determined to keep
the shades shut against the terminal and bleaching sunshine of their native San Diego. That was also
the case with the original TMP, of course, so expecting something different
here would be counter-intuitive. But by now both bands excel at it, and that’s
why a typical narrative here like “Grey Clouds” imbues the darkness with solace
when Smith and Jenkins coil their vocals around one another in one of the
album’s – fuck it, one of the year’s — best moments: “It’s a far-off
dream/It’s a long way off” Smith mantra-chants, as Jenkins counter-points “You
can’t stop it.”

 

No doubt some first-incarnation TMP fans who grew up with that
band will express disappointment that little new ground is broken here — that
fact is certainly true – or mourn the final passing of the original if they’re
not fond of the offshoots. But for fans of Pinback and BHP, the familiar ground
covered is like seeing a well-worn field-headed-to-fallow deliver a bumper
crop. The Inevitable Past offers
proof for what many TMP fans suspected way back when — so, that’s where they were headed. It also validates all three
entities in the process, and adds a compelling, sort-of-new hybrid to the mix. That
tilts the balance overwhelmingly in favor of this reunion – inevitable or not.

 

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