Pillea's 'Swell' Is a Familiar Mishmash of College Rock and Midwest Emo
Published May 06, 2021Micah Brown evokes the days of college rock and Midwest emo throughout Swell, the Montreal-based singer-songwriter's debut album as Pillea. Following his work leading the St. John's-based melodic garage-punk band MAANS, Brown moves toward a more textured, emotive approach with this solo project. You can immediately hear the influence of alt-rockers like Jimmy Eat World, American Football and the Weakerthans on Swell, so it's comforting and familiar if you're one of the many who have fostered an intimate relationship with these types of groups over the last 20 years.
Throughout Swell, Brown looks to catalogue and cache the disappointments in his life, whether they're circumstantial or self-inflicted. The speedy power-pop of "Great Success" speaks to the idea of tempering one's expectations, reframing one's ambitions and reprioritizing one's efforts: "I'm giving up on great success / I want to give you what I can / I just want to feel that I tried to be honest." On the slower "Swell," this theme continues: "Who am I to be dissatisfied? / Would I rather fail than die?"
Brown tries out a few different sounds throughout the album, bringing to mind other emo or emo-adjacent acts like Transit, Death Cab for Cutie, Mineral and Motion City Soundtrack. "Away" pulls from moody '90s alt-rock like Jimmy Eat World's Clarity and Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience, while lyrically, it employs the youthful romanticism of the Menzingers. With its sweet melodies and knotty chords, "Steal Your Time" sounds like if Peaer took musical cues from blink-182. "WIIP" leans toward electronic dream-pop with echoing vocals, a thumping drum machine and a synth effect that gives it an innocent, toybox sound befitting a song about self-assurance: "Wins are coming but just not today / When I'm in panic I just have to breathe."
Self-produced with help from Foxing's Eric Hudson and mixed by Billy Mannino (who worked on Oso Oso's breakout The Yunahon Mixtape), Swell is a great-sounding record with a good balance of professional polish and DIY charm. The acoustic-led "Sunday" is a well-layered song that attempts to wryly satirize and reappropriate Christian tradition; lyrically, it only finds its way partly there, but musically it does make for fine comfort food.
The rich, ringing guitars, plucky harmonics and moody pace of "The Weight" speak to the ubiquity of Mike Kinsella's influence in the world of autumnal, introverted indie-rock. Together, "Suffering" and "Swell" sound a bit like R.E.M. or the Smiths played with a mix of major-seventh emo and Americana twang. Yet while these three songs have dynamic, engaging vocal melodies, they're delivered over an instrumental backdrop that feels too static.
For all of Brown's strengths as a performer and producer, Swell may struggle to stand out only because it sounds too familiar. Pillea doesn't have much of an identity of its own, ending up rather as a mishmash of regurgitated sounds of college rock and Midwest emo. Swell is skillfully crafted on a solid foundation. But if Pillea is going to really demand attention, Brown may want to create something that's still familiar yet unmistakably new. (Sun Eater)