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The Passion of the Pile-Up 

The frank confessions on the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up's Picks Us Apart challenge cynics to brush the chips off their shoulders

Wednesday, Aug 31 2005
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"I was going for honesty more than anything else. ... It's oddly satisfying to get onstage and sing lyrics that are really blunt and sometimes very angry." Jim Yoshii Pile-Up frontman Paul Gonzenbach is telling me what it's like to write and perform an album that paints a vivid, often unnervingly frank picture of his recent struggle with mental illness. Take, for example, the very first track, "A Toast to the Happy Couple," on Picks Us Apart, the Oakland act's third full-length. The lyrics for this song are from a suicide note that Gonzenbach never sent.

The press release that accompanies the new record, which consists almost entirely of an e-mail from Gonzenbach to Jim Yoshii's publicist, talks gravely about how he only survived his breakdown because his "dad came and didn't let me out of his sight for a couple weeks." And over the phone from the East Coast leg of the band's current tour, the guitarist/pianist speaks with the quiet calm of someone who has felt his world spin out of control into absolute, utterly forlorn, it-just-has-to-end desperation, and then held on as it slowly, painstakingly righted itself.

Twenty-odd years in the epically stoic, categorically Protestant, nose-to-the-grindstone trenches of Midwestern farm-town life have conditioned me to treat Gonzenbach rather gingerly, as if talking about emotional battle scars might make him -- or worse, me -- break into a gazillion pieces (and then somebody's going to have to clean that mess up). My cornfed gut's initial reaction, therefore, is to be somewhat suspicious of any album as excruciatingly personal, as brutally honest as Picks Us Apart: Surely the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up must be a bunch of gratuitously self-indulgent process junkies who deserve to be written off for their adolescent mooning about, right?

But five years on the West Coast have, thankfully, broken me of the habit of grimacing when someone has the "bad manners" to air his dirty little feelings out in public. And so, while my two alter egos are busy duking it out over my own mental health, I'm able to take the time to really listen to Picks Us Apart, to focus not just on Gonzenbach's fervent need to process, but also on whether or not he and his band are able to integrate confessional mulling and musing into a fully realized album without drowning it in sap, which is no small task indeed.


Gonzenbach went to the same high school as both bassist Frankie Koeller and drummer Ryan Craven, although Craven was younger and Gonzenbach didn't know him then. A few years later, during college, Gonzenbach and Craven met through mutual friends and began playing together, eventually adding Koeller to the mix to create a three-piece, but "you know, we weren't any good," says Gonzenbach. They sweet-talked guitarist Ian Connelly away from another group, then added guitarist Noah Blumberg to complete the lineup. The band was named after an old friend "who is just a pretty funny guy, [but] ... it doesn't mean anything. It's just nonsense," laughs Gonzenbach.

In 2003, Gonzenbach had what he calls "a very severe recurrence of various mental issues I've dealt with throughout the years. ... I was severely and very desperately out of my mind and very, very good at hiding it." He bought a gun and wrote several suicide notes; "A Toast to the Happy Couple" is an agonizing amalgamation of those letters. Amid chiming guitars, wistful keys, and a toe-tapping beat, Gonzenbach's clear, expressive tenor leaves to his father "a bloodstained mattress, lifeless handshake," heartbreakingly tells his mother that "I tried for you," and promises the "boys bleeding out on the sidewalk" that they're "not the only ones." Then, suddenly, his voice arches up and over the instruments, catching your breath in your throat as he spits out, "You are all hereby formally indicted," with resentful, exhausted bitterness.

While Gonzenbach says that not all the tracks on the album are about his ordeal, it's extremely difficult not to hear that theme coursing through the wistful pop vibe and weary vocals on each, especially after an opener like "Happy Couple." Gonzenbach says, "The subject matter is sort of specific to my life and what was going on at that time, but more than anything else, no matter what the story I was telling, I wanted to go for something really succinct and really honest." Mission accomplished. Picks Us Apart is stark, it's unapologetic, and it doesn't deign to whitewash any of what Gonzenbach went through with metaphor or ambiguous, purple prose.

This kind of lyrical candor has made some squirming critics anxious to distance themselves from the dripping, throbbing heart on Gonzenbach's sleeve. PopMatters.com insists that the album is really only relevant to people who have danced just as closely with suicide and that "without that eerie attraction to bottles, blades, or bullets and their promise of release, the album has nothing else to offer." And the Portland Phoenix rather viciously described the work as "a slog through suicidal-teenager-diary-level lyrics."

Gonzenbach's desire to constantly bare all can leave one feeling a bit like an unwilling voyeur on an unsolicited tour of his psyche. Here, on "Black & Gold," we can witness his attempts at self-medication ("Pass the day with pills and wine"). Over here, in the "Silver Sparkler" room, we can observe Gonzenbach's trips to the psychiatrist and learn about how it all impacted his family ("I don't think you took a breath from March until September"). And it's all set to music that seems vaguely familiar: The ringing guitars and glistening synths sometimes make the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up sound like the Killers after a few electroshock therapy sessions, while airy vocals and evocative lyrics set to a perky beat seem to point to a lot of time spent listening to Death Cab for Cutie.

But the implication that the unembellished honesty of Picks Us Apart makes it worthlessly mawkish or insipid is rather lazy. And aggressive, adamant suggestions that this album will only be meaningful to other people who have contemplated suicide sound more than a little like overcompensation, a frantic attempt to leave top-secret personal demons in the dust. Even if most of us have never gone so far as to buy the weapon of self-destruction, we can all -- yes, all of us -- relate to moments, no matter how fleeting, of feverish desperation and sheer despair. That Gonzenbach is willing and able to speak so openly about it is admirable. And rather than being a hackneyed, overly schmaltzy effort in music therapy, Picks Us Apart takes a topic as self-indulgent as depression, pairs it with excessively commonplace trends like neo-new wave and post-O.C. emo, and manages to come up with an end product that is lovely and engaging, even outside of group meetings.

The pealing keyboards and hushed acoustic guitars of "Heart My Home" shimmer under the gorgeously harmonized chorus: "They say we'll make your heart our home." And if your own heart doesn't just break when Gonzenbach gives voice to his parents ("Son, this isn't only killing you") over turbulent, bass-driven post-punk pop, then you might want to double-check that it's still beating. Elsewhere, Gonzenbach applies his desire to be upfront to other themes. "'Jailhouse Rock' is full of gay innuendos -- or not really innuendo. It's pretty explicit. ... It really stuck in my craw that on the first record, a lot of the reviews said, 'This is just another sad boy whining about a girl.' And it's dumb because it was a sad boy whining about a boy. ... I felt like part of just being extremely blunt was to include that as well."

Picks Us Apart is not a comfortable album, and it's not meant to be. It's a rare example of a musician using his craft to blatantly acknowledge, rather than process, the horrible experience he had -- and doing it artfully enough so that the album never feels like the kind of sniveling, preachy therapy session no one wants to be a party to. The record had the new and improved, emotionally functional West Coast version of myself, the one who appreciates Jim Yoshii's openness, tearing up from time to time. But it also managed to get my inner Illinoisan to pay attention -- or at least pipe down. So for all my fellow hard-nosed hard-asses out there, just try dropping your guard, even for a few minutes, and seeing what a little soul-searching can do for you. And hey, if self-examination over lush melodies and a good beat with Jim Yoshii still doesn't cut it for you, you can always try suffocating your sorrows in straight-backed Presbyterianism and regular therapy sessions with Dr. Jim Beam in my hometown.

About The Author

Rachel Devitt

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