Austin’s A Giant Dog approaches songwriting like it’s a punk-house eviction party. There’s an ebullient, what the hell, might as well go out breaking all the bottles and lighting all the furniture on fire feeling to every song on Pile, their latest record. Even the acoustic stoner jam “Get With You and Get High,” a duet with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, finds a thrilling momentum in multiple repetitions of the chorus. Though the album’s lyrics deal with divorce, the death of a parent, and serial self-sabotage, Pile’s raw propulsion encourages stage-diving into life’s downers rather than sulking around in self-pity. It’s only when you catch a line like “I can sleep when I am dead/ All my friends say I look tired/ I can barely hold my head up/ I really think I’m dying” from “Sleep When Dead” that the darkness begins to creep in.
The group’s energy stems from their deep connection to one another, and their shared serious work ethic. Friends since high school, the members of A Giant Dog have spent eight years deeply committed to their band. There was a time when they played shows every weekend in Austin, and that level of dedication tightened their sound. You can hear elements of X, Thin Lizzy, and the Pixies on Pile—that last one in the vocal interplay between singers and songwriters Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen. Ellis is a powerhouse, equally adept at whiskeyed crooning and ecstatic rallying cries. Cashen is her perfect vocal ally, howling right along or complementing her honeyed come-ons with his baritone drawl. The songs live at the intersection of punk, glam and power pop — big, bright and boisterous.
Ellis’ personal demons lurk in the darkness on Pile, but she refuses to entertain them—instead, she gives them a smartass kick and then cuts them loose. “A lot of the songs came from the worst things that have ever happened to us,” she says, “and our need to be tongue-in-cheek about them.” Hence the album art, which features a sculpture crafted by Cashen that he calls a paper-mâché “pile of poop with teeth.”
Lyrically, Ellis draws on the death of her father (“Too Much Makeup”), her divorce from former bandmate Seth Gibbs (“I’ll Come Crashing”), and the agony of aging in the rock’n’roll scene (“Sex & Drugs”) to add moments of gravitas to the band’s anthemic melodies. Ellis’s father was in and out of the hospital with cancer while the band was writing Pile, and he passed away after the record was finished. “There was a definite need to exorcise the cynical, angry emotions that come with knowing that you’re going to lose somebody very close to you,” she says. On the resulting “Too Much Makeup,” Ellis jokes about being reborn as a tampon and the band repeatedly shouts, “When you die.” It’s one of Pile’s funniest and darkest songs. “I’ll Come Crashing” is told from the point of view of the asshole in a relationship; Ellis says she wrote the lyrics when she realized it was time to separate from her husband. “I needed to pack a lot of self-sabotage into that really poppy, pretty song almost to keep myself from wanting to do worse in real life,” she says.
Of course, not everything on Pile is born of such serious circumstances. “Seventeen” both acknowledges and satirizes the feeling of being a “horny youth stuck in your room [and] hating the world,” says Ellis. After describing someone’s parents having sex, “Birthday Song” explodes with urgent refrains of “Today’s the day!” Pile is the party after the funeral, the confetti made of contracts and wedding registries. A Giant Dog are right there in the mess and the ecstasy, spinning sadness into buoyant song.