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.