Spill Pick Up What’s Left of the Pieces on ‘Top Ten’
If you’ve ever picked up a guitar and tried to start a band, it’s more than likely you’re familiar with taking as many steps backward as forward. As months turn into years, the cost of paying bills, putting food on the table, and nourishing close relationships conflict with the modus operandi of “making it” in a punk band. Spill’s debut LP, Top Ten, is an “un”success story in confronting the existential crisis that is carving out a stable life as a punk musician, a struggle hardly new for a relatively new band.
From the ashes of Placeholder and We Were Skeletons, darlings of the Pennsylvania underground, Lancaster’s Spill emerged last year with two powerfully catchy fuzz pop singles. “Sucks Either Way” and “Big Boss” continued the trend of the deeply earnest and personal lyrics vocalist Brandon Gepfer explored in Placeholder, this time around with a deeply sardonic twist. Both songs find Gepfer anguishing from the demands of a 9-to-5 that restrain him from pursuing his passion as a touring musician while using drugs and alcohol to cope, albeit unsuccessfully.
This theme of living in circles – working, imbibing, and still falling short of achieving desired goals, is further developed on Top Ten, a collection of tracks the songwriter modestly describes as, “My top ten songs I could write.” Amongst these top ten efforts are album opener, “Can’t Keep Cool” a warbling three chord garage banger that picks up right where 2015’s “Big Boss” left off. Combining elements of early Weezer’s bubblegum fuzz pop and Menzingers’ Greg Barnett’s vocal cadence, Gepfer conveys his exhaustion and frustration in the lines, “I’m tired of writing these songs about you/So bored I can hear myself choking.” The songwriter’s vexation changes form, but continues in “Keep Coming” a track resembling the jangly pop of Joyce Manor’s recent output, featuring clean guitar tones and tambourine juxtaposed against a heavily distorted chorus. “They’ll keep coming, don’t stop running/I will never change,” Gepfer sings in the second chorus followed by the lament, “It’s not about music/Oh I wish it were,” during the bridge.
The challenge in finding middle ground between realistically pursuing music while earning a livable income in order to provide for himself, finds the narrator descending further into a hopelessly rewarding state. Echoing Robert Smith’s urgent heart-on-sleeve yelp, Gepfer remarks, “But I think I’ll keep on drinking/These problems feel too good,” between dynamic guitar and drum rhythms on “Feels Too Good.” Beach Boys harmonies in the chorus break it to the narrator that, “She gets by on the facts of life,” indicating there’s a harsh reality in settling somewhere between complacent and content, somewhere that’s arm’s length of pipe dream.
Further complications arise on Top Ten in the form of romantic endeavors. Personal relationships fall between the cracks of trying to pursue music while working a full time job just to earn enough money to get back on tour. Physically, but not emotionally, removed from the one he still loves in the trudging chord progressions of slow rocker, “Only One,” the songwriter laments, “Sunday morning it doesn’t feel the same/Is it love that brought me this shame?” In an effort to cope with loneliness and indignity, the singer attempts to reconcile a mutual heartbreak, making his case in the lines, “How’s that feel?/I’m the only one you know/How’s that sound?/I’m the only one who cares,” sung in earnest against a massive chorus of heavy drums and effervescent guitar leads. The emotion runs deeper in “Turn Around,” wherein Gepfer reflects specifically on what he’s lost in the lyrics, “Staring at me at through that screen/She’s got these blonde blue eyes piercing through me/The long blonde hair blowing in the wind/And she’s gonna turn around and I’m gonna turn around,” followed by the realization, “That’s just a fantasy/I know you’ll never be happy with me/It’s one more regret I can write about /It’s one more mistake you forget about.”
The absence of his lover becomes more profound with the loss of close friends. On the album closer, “Stop Drinking My Beer” bouncy, frenetic punk hooks create the backdrop to the lyrics, “We got new friends, but they don’t know me yet/They come to my house and drink my beer/I’ve got new friends, but they don’t know my regrets.” Worth noting in these particular lines is the juxtaposition of the “we” versus “I” in reference to Gepfer’s new friends, the circumstantial reality being he is independent, if not completely removed, from the “we.” Estranged from any meaningful relationship, the end of the record finds the songwriter at a loss of his dreams, partner, and peers – entirely and unintentionally isolated.
The release of Top Ten two weeks before the end of 2016, a landmark year for records and the events surrounding them, is interesting in and of itself. Whether the mid-December release date were intentional or not, it plays upon the narrative of Spill: two short-lived bands who had traction, joining forces and scrambling to deliver a proper recorded effort while juggling the curveballs life throws in the form of desk jobs and crumbling relationships. Spill nearly miss the deadline, but deliver a thesis that will turn the heads of every student in class upon the realization that handing in the assignment early doesn’t tilt the grade in any direction, specifically on this year’s rubric for new releases. The late-in-year release is one of Top Ten’s most seductive qualities that enhances the record’s lure as a whole. While this year’s earlier releases sit on the shelf after their fair shake of rotations, Top Ten grasps the listener by the collar – as if to say, “Hey, wait! I’ve got something I really need to tell you!” yanking us into Spill’s autobiographical garage pop hooks, an effectual effort by no means too little or too late.