(Dirt Cult Records)
There is something particularly special about self-titled albums – the unspoken rule is that, when a band puts its name on an album like that, it is intended to exemplify just exactly who that group is at its core. A self-titled album is a statement of a band’s personality as well as a statement of intent; bands always stand behind their output – even if only for the moment when that album is brand new – but a band’s self-titled album is a document which outlines who that band is and what they’re about. That’s a really big deal – and almost commands that such an album be judged on a different scale, or by different merits.
It isn’t meant to sound trite (although some critic somewhere will certainly say it is), but NEEDLES//PINS clearly understand what they have on their hands with the ten songs which comprise their fourth full-length album, and that’s why they have front-loaded it with their own name. Those who hear it and are already familiar with the band will recognize that this release is the one which promises to cement the stature that the band first won with their third album, Good Night Tomorrow, in 2017.
As soon as stylus settles into groove and “Woe Is Us” opens the A-side of NEEDLES//PINS, listeners will understand exactly all that has gone on in the band’s world (other than the pandemic, of course – that affected everyone) since last we heard from the band. Right off, the last four years are perfectly self-evident in the tone of “Woe Is Us”; singer/guitarist Adam Solomonian’s is a little thicker and deeper perhaps as a result of road seasoning) and drummer Kacey Budgell hits her kit a hell of a lot harder here than was the case before. That is not to say the lighthearted spirit which used to color the band’s songs has been abandoned (their sweetness is still present in the “take it all back, take it all back – I miss you” refrain on the lyric sheet of “Woe Is Us”), just that the tones are a little firmer and less feminine. That sensation holds up through the second cut on the side, “A Rather Strained Apologetic” (which sounds more like Husker Du than The Replacements) and the unapologetically offbeat (literally – the drums go out of their way to skip and jump and keep listeners off-balance) “Of Things Best Left To Chance” before finally settling into a really good, brick-thick rhythm with keyboardist Jesse Gander’s help on “Stumble.” There, listeners will instantly recognize the power pop caprice that NEEDLES//PINS used to win listeners over completely on Good Night, Tomorrow and fall in love with the performance here – even with Solomonian’s gruffer vocals.
As many solid inroads as the A-side makes, easily the best is “Winnipeg ’03,” which closes the side. There, Solomonian shovels some of the gravel out of his throat and the band scales some of the power out of their power pop for a tune which comes closer to being a ballad than any other in the band’s repertoire. Solomonian deftly helps listeners see his heart throughout the song’s running (check out lines like, “Your eyes still shine like summer, and mine still die like fall,” and particularly the sleepy, offhanded delivery of them), and the shimmering addition of Jesse Gander’s keyboard to the song brings with it an almost sombre and wistful quality. “Winnipeg ’03” truly is a great way to close the A-side of NEEDLES//PINS for just the unrepentant heart of it, and will have listeners ready to follow to the album’s B-side as the song fades out.
…And on that B-side, NEEDLES//PINS strikes the heart and soul of their muse perfectly, the moment that “Gleamer” sets the running on its way. There, Macey Budgell sheathes her drumsticks and the other members of the band make their way along very tentatively – almost carefully, even – as if not wanting to risk upsetting the delicacy of the moment. Even so, Solomonian still gives a full-throated growl in his vocal delivery, and the guitar tone is far from clean – but it winds its way along gently just the same and will leave hearts won as well as eyes damp when the song concludes after two and a half minutes.
Not inclined to leave listeners hanging or confused, NEEDLES//PINS falls right back into their power pop comfort zone in an almost charmed way for both “I Was Underjoyed If That’s A Word” (which it isn’t – but it is a cute nod to Sloan, boys) and “Baleful” which, combined, sort of encapsulate the emotional breadth that the band covers on this album as a whole – but manages to condense it down to about three and a half minutes of music, in total. Between these two songs, NEEDLES//PINS effortlessly set sweetness against aggression and joy and fury all in line with each other in a manner which almost feels careless – but listeners may also find exhilarating, when they work their way through. Here, Solomonian growls furiously into the mic, but also manages to come off as vulnerable through lines like “Can’t keep from flickering out/ Pack it all up and leaving/ A generational town – curse of it all, cower and crawl” inhabit a sense of disappointment, but also a sense of regret – and that combination will have listeners instantly interested to learn more, and so dig deeper into the songs. On the surface, the uninformed could pass these songs off as “perfectly average” album cuts – but those who have already been hooked by the band will know better and be filled up by the power in the band’s performance.
In the B-side’s late-playing, NEEDLES//PINS actually steps up their game to a slightly more raucous level for a minute as guitars come close to clipping on “Grow,” while Solomonian straddles the line between furious and heartbroken – but the resolution cp,es through beautifully in “The Tyranny of Comforts,” which closes both the side and the album. There, Adam Solomonian goes full-force into a hard luck-worn place with a battle cry of, “Our desperation is a dance with the devil” and proceeds to get precisely no lighter as discussions of the band caustically anointing themselves follow and the rhythm of the song remains both consistent and at least cloudy – if not dark. Even off-hand mentions of being “the lucky ones” (which come later in the song’s play) don’t really offer any bright spots in the mix, nor does one last increase in tempo at the song’s close.
In the end, listeners will find that they’re not sure how they should feel with NEEDLES//PINS. The consistent, darker tone feels as though the band wants to grow and take greater, less pop-informed chances – but the transition isn’t quite complete at the beginning or by the end of the album’s running. With that in mind, yes – NEEDLES//PINS is a definitive document for this band, and a good one at that; but the best, most salacious part is that it doesn’t go all the way to anywhere. On their next album, NEEDLES//PINS will have to give one last push to bring what they’re doing (and, by extension, bring this album as well) into focus. When that happens, the revelation which comes with it will be great and very rewarding, but it will also give listeners the last piece of context they need to inform this album too – and so what will make this good self-titled album phenomenal. [Bill Adams]
NEEDLES//PINS is out now. Buy it here, directly from Dirt Cult Records.