Since officially arriving in 2014 with their tantalizingly rich EP, Pale, followed by the hypnotic Pine and 2016’s emotional roller coaster, Please, Plush established themselves as one of the Bay area’s most promising bands. They also quickly emerged as a new outfit ready to take shoegaze and dream-pop to new heights. Along the way, however, they’ve undergone a couple of adjustments. For starters, they’ve added an extra “l” to become known as Pllush, and with the alteration comes a fuller and more expansive sound on their superb, new record, Stranger to the Pain.
Technically Karli Helm (vocals/guitar), Eva Treadway (vocals/guitar), Sinclair Riley (bass), and Dylan Lockey’s (drums) “debut” album, Pllush’s fourth overall output echoes the aching alt-rock and grunge-pop of ’90s, both musically and thematically. Stories about eroding relationships, friends in trouble, and the angst of a young generation living in a world spiraling out of control are reminiscent of those told by Veruca Salt, Hole, Alanis Morissette, and one of the great bands of all-time (more momentarily). Opener “Elliot” immediately reveals the quartet’s new approach. Commencing with a melancholic and dreamy tone, the song evolves into a gritty and forceful number. The searing “Syrup” quietly rages of a person desperately wanting to be heard and seen. Treadway sings with a deadpan howl, “If I stand with my back to the wall, would you see me?”
When Pllush slow things down a bit, like on the gripping “Shannon” and the subtle roar of “Fallout”, they still take immediacy to gritty heights. Meanwhile, the introspective “Okay” is a short, pensive rocker that sounds like Nirvana unplugged. Sounding like Kurt Cobain revealing his soul for all to hear and see, which is most apparent on the lyrics:
“Nothing now can stop me.
I’m a stranger to the pain.
But when I throw it at something
How true is my aim?“
The height of the album and their bigger, broader sound occurs with the one-two punch of “Ortega” and “Big Train”. On “Ortega”, the quartet deliver the most upbeat and energetic number of the album. Helm’s and Treadway’s dueling guitars and Lockney’s drumming feature prominently, creating the urgency for Treadway’s story about “a fucked up situation we somehow all got in”. This isn’t just a story about young folks “crying in the bathroom at the New Year’s”, but rather how the new world order has left so many people stranded and families torn apart.
Then there is “Big Train”, which is a slow-burning epic even though it comes in at less than 4 minutes. Immediately, the band grabs you by the throat and never eases their grip, as the reverb-drenched guitar and plodding rhythms inform us that we’re about to a ride an emotional train wreck. When Helm’s pain-stricken vocals enter the fray, we at once feel her pain and struggles. Her battle to get through the loneliness and hurt that follows a break up and the long journey to rediscovering oneself. She achingly states:
“Who’s going to love me more
When I’m crying in the middle of the night?
Maybe I’m feeling torn
Because nothing ever comes out right?”
Later in the album comes “Sleeper Cab”, which is a piano-driven instrumental of “Big Train”. It is simply gorgeous, and with each note Helm’s voice echoes even though it is absent. The two companion songs – “Big Train” and “Sleeper Cab” – reveal the power and talent of Pllush. Together, they form one of the great “duets” or “flip-side-of-the-same-coin” tunes of the year.
Pllush, however, do not completely detour from their early beginnings. The stirring “3:45” commences with a slight head-noodling rhythm before slowly building into a magnificent jam, echoing the brilliance of My Morning Jacket great jams. Atmospheric heights are achieved on the finale “Blue Room”, which is a dreamgaze / shoegaze dazzler of epic proportions. It provides the perfect conclusion to an album that is striking in its effect and awestruck in its final impact. And to think, Pllush are still a band finding its feet and wading its way through the trials and tribulations of life. However, they’ve brought us along for the ride, making us realize their stories are ours and our are theirs.
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