Some songs are so indelibly gorgeous, epic, and ambitious that you question how an entire movie or an Italian Renaissance painting can be reproduced within a single track. In contrast, there are songs so gossamer-thin, frail, and earnest that you wonder how the grand scale of human existence could be distilled so truly and concisely.
Some artists (Smashing Pumpkins, M83) peddle in the former, while others (Elliot Smith, Jessica Pratt) in the latter — but rarely do artists manage to marry those two competing visions. That is what makes Wild Pink’s 2018 album Yolk in the Fur such a stunning manifesto. Frontman John Ross has compiled an album full of grandiose, tour-de-force sonic declarations whose most memorable highlights may be the moments that are hushed, reserved, and devastatingly austere.
“Jewels Drossed in the Runoff,” the centerpiece of the 10-track album, starts off with sweeping ambient synths and sustaining guitar lines that recall the frontier soundscapes of shoegaze bands such as Ride and Mazzy Star. Yet the most evocative arc on the track is the pinhole moment when Ross whispers that his subject has a “heart like a star,” a hopelessly endearing admission that would sound naïve if it weren’t delivered with so much conviction.
“The whole album felt cohesive that way — bouncing between those dynamics of big sounding moments and smaller ones,” says Ross, whose group opens for Strand of Oaks at the Independent on Tuesday, April 23. “It wasn’t really planned. That’s just how things flowed best.”
In 2017, the three-piece Brooklyn band released their self-titled debut, a collection of pristine, albeit low-stakes folk-pop songs. Unsatisfied with the output, Ross embraced his expansive vision, a fearless move for a group still searching for its identity.
“I felt like I left a lot on the table with the first album,” Ross says. “For the second one, I wanted to make something I wouldn’t regret. I wanted to take my ideas as far as they could go, and when things got big, we kept it that way.”
Those instincts proved fruitful.
The opening track of the album, “Burger Hill,” is a shifting, shimmering masterpiece, an ethereal number where delicate fingerpicked guitars slice through the foggy atmosphere of looming synths. “Lake Erie” is a masterpiece of insistent Johnny Marr guitar-play and “Love Is Better” is an unashamed embrace of earnest power-pop.
Wild Pink has the same sense of audacity as baroque-pop forbearers Arcade Fire, but whereas Win Butler and company anchor their messages via through-the-rafters choruses or rebellious calls to arms, Ross relays his voice in devastatingly hushed couplets. The album is filled with mantras of self-improvement and self-effacement, moments that disarm the listener with their simplicity and candor.
Ross sings about “changing the path of my life,” and affirming that “love is better than anything else,” while conceding that he’d “never get out.” Every vow and promise to chase his destiny is weighed down by the reality of self-doubt and anxiety. Stunning admissions of failure are balanced by inspiring declarations of ascension. He is up. He is down. He is wholly human.
“I definitely feel self-conscious about my lyrics sometimes,” Ross says. “But I couldn’t imagine tempering them at all.”
The emotional directness of Ross’ lyrics and the group’s deft use of ’80s-era guitar and synths have prompted many critics to label the album “heartland rock,” an ode to the heydays of Tom Petty and Jackson Browne. While Wild Pink paint umber-colored sonic vistas that evoke the rolling prairies of the middle of the country, Ross — a Florida native — said he had no intention of writing music that targeted down-on-their-luck farmers or former high school sports stars — selections of an idyllic America with rootsy, time-honored values.
He does admit, however, that nostalgia plays a huge role in his songs, through its ability to conjure up those wellsprings of ersatz images. Even if those memories may ultimately be false, the feelings they evoke are real.
“Nostalgia is an idealized reality,” says Ross. “It doesn’t have to be real. If you’re going to be earnest in a song, you kind of have to create this idealized world.”
In many ways, Wild Pink recall American Music Club and Red House Painters, two early-’90s slowcore bands with San Francisco roots. Both Mark Eitzel and (pre-misanthropic) Mark Kozelek were unafraid to dream big, only their worlds were filled with the loping streets of Nob Hill and the wide boulevards of the Mission. And like Ross, they had a penchant for cataloging the minutiae of life, elevating solemn small moments amidst the backdrop of songs that carried on without horizons.
On the title track of Yolk in the Fur, Ross coos softly that, “I’m with you,” a muted three-word line that would seem to fall along the wayside of a song so sprawling in nature. But that is the very nature of Wild Pink. In a world filled with an overwhelming din of ceaseless noise, Ross believes that the loudest moments are often the silent ones, shared between two people making sense of the static together.
Wild Pink, supporting Strand of Oaks, Tuesday, April 23, 8 p.m., at the Independent, 628 Divisadero St. $18-$20; theindependentsf.com