“I could watch you die and not feel a thing,” Sabrina Ellis, frontwoman of Austin raunch rockers A Giant Dog, sings on “Creep”. It’s the second song on the band’s third full-length effort, Pile, and just one of many that gleefully sneers at anything in the mere vicinity of sweet sentiment. And that’s OK, especially for those of us who believe that rock and roll is weird, ugly, unapologetically dirty stuff. History has shown us that in its best moments, rock music is supposed to provoke, shock, and titillate us in equal measure. Take two or three decent-sized paces out of your comfort zone, and that’s where the music should leave you.
A Giant Dog, for one, doesn’t need a reminder. Now three records into its career, the macabre Austin rockers know that dark themes and a want of a good time aren’t mutually exclusive things. Their 2012 debut, Fight, was a menacing little fucker of a record, as was 2013’s Bone. Both anchored A Giant Dog’s sophomoric lust for sex, drugs, and rock and roll with a solid foundation of garage pop and punk. Pile, the band’s debut outing for indie rock powerhouse Merge, is another ragged run through the thematic gutter. It’s also the most complete and fully formed record of its career.
Like its predecessors, Pile revels proudly in seemingly everything we were brought up to be wary of in our formidable years: cheap sex, drugs, death, bad relationships, and all sorts of high- and lowbrow hedonism in between. “You’ve been told that drugs will stain your clean white soul,” Ellis sings on “& Rock & Roll”. But once again, the allure of rebellion is something A Giant Dog can’t stave off. The group’s instincts for ballsy, carefree rock and roll remain solidly intact, allowing for another record that’s as much cheap, dumb fun as it is dark and macabre. The balance is key. “I know we’d all be better off if you just died,” Ellis sings on “King Queen”. “I’m sweet enough to make it look like suicide.” It would be hard not to wince at such a lyric without the fun, feral guitar rock underneath it.
Still, this isn’t just Fight or Bone redux. Pile is as delightfully crude as anything the band has done prior, but it also exhibits a noticeable tightening of craftsmanship. Along with the band’s tried and true adrenalized garage thrash (“Not a Miracle”, “Too Much Make Up”), Pile casts a wider sonic net, roping in glam rock and even some straightforward pop into its musical arsenal. “Hitchhike Love” lets A Giant Dog’s love of big, riff-heavy guitar rock take the wheel, while Ellis pines over the thrill of a quick fling. “I know I can’t do you wrong, because I barely know your name,” she sings bluntly. “And I hope you feel the same.” Other tracks, like “Sex & Drugs” and “& Rock & Roll”, shimmer and boogie into jaunty pop territory. There are even some gentler acoustic numbers that border upon cute, that is until the subject matter once again spoils the sweetness (“Get With You and Get High”).
Call it what you want, be it glam, pop, thrash, trash, punk, garage, whatever. It’s all rock and roll to A Giant Dog. Pile might celebrate the moodier, grittier side of rock music, but it does so with enough of an ear for a good hook to make you want to embrace the weird. “I believe there will come a time when we can all just rock and roll,” Ellis prognosticates on “& Rock & Roll”. For A Giant Dog, that time has inarguably come.
Essential Tracks: “Creep”, “Seventeen”, and “& Rock & Roll”