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Strong medicine
The Pills and the Collisions join forces at T.T. the Bear’s

That Corin Ashley, the singer/bassist of the Pills, and the Boston band’s singer/guitarist, Dave Thompson, are nestled into a booth at the Middle East bakery chatting up the imminent release of their third album, A Fistful of Pills (out Tuesday on Primary Voltage), is proof in itself that the veteran power-pop combo are nothing if not resilient. The Pills, who’ll celebrate Fistful’s release this Saturday at T.T. the Bear’s Place, should have fallen apart on any number of occasions over the past couple of years. In fact, to hear long-time collaborators Ashley and Thompson hash out the band’s saga, you wonder it all didn’t implode somewhere around the release of their second album, 2000’s Kick In (Monolyth), in an amphetamine-fueled flame-out as quick and frenzied as the two-minute outbursts that characterize the typical Pills tune.

"This record was made under the most extraordinary circumstances," says Ashley. Said circumstances kicked in around the time the Pills were making their sophomore follow-up to 1998’s Wide Awake with the Pills (Monolyth). Convinced of the band’s potential for radio, Monolyth owner Jeff Marshall teamed them with former Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham, who worked with them on pre-production and helped streamline the ideas they cooked up over months of demo-ing songs. "Nobody had ever said to us before, ‘You should change the melody, you should simplify the lyrics,’ and that was very traumatic," Ashley recalls. "That album was made under a lot of pressure, which in the end was wasted energy."

Eight weeks after Kick In’s release, Monolyth folded, and the Pills were left to promote a new CD with no promotional apparatus. But Ashley’s not resentful. "That’s the oldest story in the world — the band bitter at their old label. I will always be grateful to Jeff Marshall for helping us out as much as he did." With no ambitious label riding the band, A Fistful of Pills figured to be easier to make. It wasn’t, as Ashley goes on to explain. "We went into this album thinking there’s no pressure, we’re just going to go in and pick our 12 favorite songs, and we’re going to record ’em with a friend of ours, Roger Lavallee, from the Curtain Society." Three weeks after the band recorded the basic tracks, however, ex-Bosstone Nate Albert "borrowed our drummer [Jamie Vavra] for six months," recounts Ashley, who, in an apparent demonstration of no ill will, waves warmly to Albert as he happens to pass by a window outside.

While the Pills waited for the return of their drummer, lead-guitarist Cory Harding — who plays on roughly half of Fistful’s tracks — announced he was quitting. "When Cory left, our first reaction was, ‘Oh shit, how can we ever go on?’ recalls Thompson. "Because we had been with him for eight years, and he was such an important part of the sound." Halfway into an album they had been excited about making, the foursome found themselves on the verge of breaking up. Ashley continues, "Dave and I both looked across the mixing console and thought, okay, do you wanna do this? And we decided that we both still believed in these songs."

Enter former Shods guitarist/Mighty Mighty Bosstones touring keyboardist Dave Aaronoff, a long-time friend and fan of the Pills who also fronted his own power-pop outfit, the Details. "I think he saw that he could come in and rejuvenate the situation, because it was a pretty sad time," says Ashley. Thompson adds, "Dave is a great singer, and he’s got a great lead-guitar style that’s different from Cory’s. Cory’s style was chaotic, almost psychedelic [the album credits list Harding on "stunt guitar"], and Dave’s is almost a combination of Mick Jones and Brian Setzer. It was a change, not for the better or worse, but different — and really cool."

Accolades aside, Aaronoff’s inspired performances on lead guitar and keyboards are convincing on their own, and his presence enhances the combo’s muscular, riff-driven crunch. As usual, Ashley and Thompson — who share equally in the songwriting duties — volley an outstanding batch of numbers back and forth: Thompson’s "Hang On Tight" kicks things off with a frothy, Sloan-like groove; Ashley’s brisk "Butterfield 8" picks up the pace with an exploding rhythm section pushing a pair of buzzsaw guitars. There’s no shortage of windmill-worthy Who-via-Jam-isms here — check out the power-chorded "You Could Have Kept That to Yourself" and try not playing air guitar — but the Pills slow things down, too, and that makes for a nice contrast. Not to mention the way the shimmering pop melody that buoys "Brand New Pair of Eyes" is allowed to stretch and breathe. Elsewhere, "Kissing the Dirt" opens with a syncopated, dub-dosed bass line. Harding’s parting contribution, the loping "Ballad of Don Crawford," is the closest the Pills have ever come to country-and-western.

"When we first started this band, we very much confined our sound to one thing," says Ashley. "And that’s great when you’re first trying to make a splash. The danger is that you paint yourself into a corner and you’re just a one-trick pony. I’m really pleased about this album in that it shows the Pills are able to grow musically and still be the Pills."

Evan Koch, who started the Primary Voltage label two years ago, was knocked out when he heard a handful of demos for Fistful. "The first time we talked was six or seven months ago, and they were halfway through the process of making the record. They sent me a CD-R, and it all sounded great to me. But I figured that maybe they’ve got their career to the point where they didn’t want to work with a label just putting itself together." To Koch, the Pills are a perfect fit for a local label whose moniker suggests loud electric pop. "I’m a sucker for a good songwriter more than a technical virtuoso or a look. I’m more reeled in by the ability to put together a great hook and chorus and chord progression."

Fistful proves the Pills to be masters of those three elements. But given the hard times of the past couple of years, they don’t take their gifts for granted. "As you get older," Ashley says, "you realize there’s a finite amount of time that you’re going to be able to get four people on the same page, where their schedules in their lives all work well enough to do this. The challenges of being able to rehearse and play shows and make albums get pretty tough. There are real lives waiting for us out there."

FORMER MAKE LISA RICH singer-songwriter Bo Barringer needed a little danger in his life. So he formed the Collisions with former Big Gladys bassist Dave Tatelbaum and drummer Johnny Mooradian and started writing songs with titles like "Live by Fire, Die by Fire," "Love Is a Razorblade," and "Your Gun." Feeling the pull of something darker than the new-wave pop of his old outfit, Barringer even took a stab at covering Robert Johnson’s "Me and the Devil Blues," wrapping his distorted yelp inside a tumultuous Bo Diddley beat accented by harmonica blasts from Caged Heat’s Jill Kurtz. The fruits of his labors can be found on the Collisions’ full-length debut, Talk Is the New Action (out on Boston’s Windjam label), whose release the band also celebrate this Saturday at T.T.’s.

"Make Lisa Rich was a fine band — they were great pop songs, we were tight, we had it down," Barringer says. "But I wanted to tap into the evil a little bit more. I was looking for something a little more dangerous and visceral. I liked what we were doing with MLR, but it wasn’t getting out all those demons. I wanted something that had a bit of shock and surprise, something that would let the chaos creep in."

Untidy notions like love and betrayal were always a few of Lisa’s favorite things, Barringer points out, but now they’re "just dressed differently." Indeed, the grumbling bass and the low-circling guitar that underpin "The American Dream," the disc’s opening track, make his sour ruminations on the consumer culture that passes for wish-fulfillment idealism sound poisoned and terminally toxic. Ditto for the monologue-driven stomp of "Gasoline Can," which features backing vocals by Bourbon Princess singer Monique Ortiz. Elsewhere, a razor-sharp Wirey guitar riff slices like quicksilver through "The One That You Love" and stops whiplash-short before the band tumble into the crash-and-burn glitter rock of "Trying To Be Nice." And if you can envision Richard Hell and the Voidoids as a klezmer band, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what "Amateur" sounds like. "I hope we’re not sequestering ourselves into obsolescence by being different," Barringer muses. "Because there’s a lot of success in being familiar."

All told, Talk seethes with sex, lust, menace, and claustrophobic tension. "It’s sort of pretentious," Barringer concludes, "but I feel like the goal of any good rock and roll is to create a fire in people and make them feel like they’re living more intensely, even if it’s just for a moment. I wanna hit all parts of the body — that aching in the chest or that pain in the heart, and you want to feel it in your loins, too. And if you’re good enough, then maybe you’ve even got people thinking with their heads."

The Pills and the Collisions perform this Saturday, November 1, at T.T. the Bear’s Place; call (617) 492-BEAR.

Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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