Sometimes, bad things happen to good bands. Such was the case with Pela, the short-lived and woefully underrated alt-rock group from Brooklyn whose compelling mix of post-punk and alt-folk wasn't enough to successfully navigate the perilous waters of today's music industry. After four years, a nasty label fallout and just one full-length album, Pela disbanded in 2009. And while two of its members - Billy McCarthy (vocals, guitar) and Eric Sanderson (bass,vocals) - moved on to form a new band called We Are Augustines, the record Pela created during its short time together is an overlooked alt-rock gem worth revisiting. Indie in the best sense of the word, 2007's Anytown Graffti is a near-perfect American rock record, incorporating themes of loss, romance, drugs and small-town life over flawlessly executed guitar riffs and seamless musicality.
Pela is The Killers without the pretense, Modest Mouse without the schizophrenic funk. They tackle songs with the epic artistry of Arcade Fire and the stripped-down melancholia of The National with equal finesse - and it's unfortunate that I must resort to comparisons because, in an ideal world, Pela itself would be a point of reference to any fan of rock music. McCarthy's voice invokes a cross between Springsteen and Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, a throaty wail that deftly switches between unsettling and soothing. Album opener "Waiting on the Stairs" starts as a guitar-driven march punctuated by McCarthy howling lines: "We should jump off of a cliff into a wedding ring." The song's riff-heavy coda is the type of tempo switch-up you didn't even know you were begging for until it happens, and McCarthy's repeated appeals to "Come sit next to me/ I am not your enemy" sound like they're directed right at you.
Elsewhere, the up-tempo nature of "Lost to the Lonesome," the closest Pela ever came to having a hit single, is reflected in the pseudo-idealism of the lyrics, including "We could break the bed without broken hearts/ And we could leave the lonely and lost/ To their lonesome hearts." The optimism doesn't last long, though, and the fast-paced, folksy "Cavalry" details the barbaric invasion of a town, during which "none were saved."
"Your Desert's Not a Desert at All" slows things down considerably for a subdued reflection on a flailing relationship. McCarthy, at his calmest on the album, sings, "You're with some divided man/ Just be careful you don't fall apart/ Call me if you want to break out." The light instrumentation coupled with the relatively soft vocals create a song that, like its narrator, is beautiful in its vulnerability.
Additionally, one of Pela's strongest aspects is its striking lyricism - not surprising for a group that lists writer Raymond Carver as one of its influences. The title track highlights this penchant with poignant lines like "You were pointing out some constellation/ But will you whisper in my ear/ How we threw away the years/ Now that would be a conversation."
While listening to McCarthy moan, "You are the fortunate one in this song/ So wake up," between the biting riffs of "Drop Me Off," it struck me that he's right - I am fortunate to have found in Pela a rare display of musical authenticity in an era when raw talent is overshadowed by pre-packaged swagger. Pela may be dissolved, but let's hope that modern listeners soon become more receptive to bands that don't fit radio-friendly formats.