Graded on a Curve:
The Special Pillow, “World’s Finest”

The Special Pillow hail from Hoboken, NJ, a fact that, if you are of a certain age and/ or pop-rock disposition, might lead to thoughts of a certain thing. While undeniably exhibiting traits that can be described as post-Feelies and Yo La Tengo-descended, the band is so much more, with an incontestable tendency towards psychedelia. Made up of all-star long-haulers, their six-song “World’s Finest” EP is intended to celebrate 25 years of existence. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital (with an extra track on the CD and download) through Zofko Records.

With the exception of one 7-inch from 1995 that came out on Really Fast Racecar Records, the other releases by The Special Pillow, seven in all by my count, have been issued by Zofko, which is their own label, commencing operations with Ancient History in 1994. Regarding the connection to Hoboken precedent, it’s pretty substantial, as James McNew of Yo La Tengo (also of his own project Dump at the time) plays guitar on The Special Pillow’s debut.

McNew is also on the 7-inch, but nothing else; for a long time, the core of the band was bassist Dan Cuddy and drummer Peter Walsh, both of the terrific and terribly underrated Hypnolovewheel, violinist Katie Gentile of the equally terrific and nearly as underrated indie supergroup Run On, and joining a little later, guitarist Peter Stuart (formerly of the Tryfles and Headless Horsemen). Cuddy and Gentile have been in the band for the duration; Walsh was with them for Ancient History, 2003’s Inside the Special Pillow, and ’07’s Sleeping Beauty, which is when Stuart joined.

Walsh left after 2014’s Infinite Regression; Stuart remained for ’16’s At the Earth’s Core, ’18’s Sleeping Weird, and he plays on “World’s Finest” too, which additionally features Eric Marc Cohen (Fly Ashtray, Autobody, Dymaxion, etc.) on drums (he also wields sticks on At the Earth’s Core and Sleeping Weird), the excellent u-ground folkster Debby Schwartz on vocals (her voice also figures in At the Earth’s Core), plus Steven Levi, Cheryl Kingan (both of The Scene Is Now) and Robbie Lee on horns.

As you might’ve picked up from all the background above, there’s a whole lot of Jersey going on here beyond just the McNew connection (this is a nice place to mention that a version of “Automatic Doom” from Inside The Special Pillow is found on Yo La Tengo’s 2015 covers-heavy LP Stuff Like That There), but it’s even more important to emphasize The Special Pillow’s psych comportment.

As their name kinda suggests a band compiled on the Chocolate Soup for Diabetics series (or the Nuggets II boxset), The Special Pillow are unabashedly melodic, often downright catchy, and frequently baroque. However, “World’s Finest”’s opener “The Week in Review” begins with Lee’s flute and offers a bountiful helping of Stuart’s sitar, though the psychedelia gets balanced out by the gal vocals and the strings, which manage to bring to mind Fairport Convention, Kendra Smith, and the Go-Betweens.

Good thoughts, all. “I Woke Up” initially comes off like a tougher rocker, but it’s just as much of a folk-tinged strummer, and one that underscores how The Special Pillow can be mildly similar to the work of Robert Schneider (he of The Apples in Stereo/ Elephant 6 fame). With this said, the Pillow are generally subtler in their psych-pop motions, as “I Woke Up” has undercurrents of old school indie pop and even a little Flying Nun action (I’m thinking of Robert Scott’s The Bats).

But “Serious Eyedrops” dishes the kind of achy strings that make me envision myself in a movie where I’m standing at the edge of a woods by a field in a sweater holding a book of poems as the sun is going down, thinking about the girl who’s gone. Who wrote those poems? I wrote those fucking poems, mate. It’s that kind of movie. And it’s that kind of song.

And yet, The Special Pillow never enter the twee zone. To illustrate, “No Such Too Much” effectively lands in the aforementioned tough-rocker neighborhood, though Gentile’s layered strings (falling outside of baroque-pop mode) help to establish cohesiveness. From there, “Monday’s Puzzle” brings more of that guitar-pop glide, reminding me just a smidge of The Clientele if they were more ’60s psych-pop reverent, but then comes a heavier back half that reinforces how the Pillow’s releases have over the years been prime pickings for readers of the Ptolemaic Terrascope zine.

The lively title track closes the vinyl. At first, it exudes a neo-psych flavor but expands it with the strings and horns and then stretches out to nearly seven minutes. It’s a solid finale, but the digital remix of “I Woke Up” by High Tunnels, which is Cuddy’s former bandmate in Hypnolovewheel Dave Ramirez, is a sweet tweaking of The Special Pillow’s sound (complete with chirping birds), so folks tempted to pick up a copy of “World’s Finest” have a choice to make regarding format. That’s not a bad situation to be in.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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