San Diego has a knack for turning out some really cathartic music, doesn’t it? For a couple of decades (if not longer), the city has been practically bubbling over with some of the most angst-ridden musicians. Of course, there’s Three Mile Pilot and their sister band, The Black Heart Procession, but there’s also the whole San Diego-based Gravity Records family that provided an outlet for bands like Antioch Arrow—bands that practically made a career out of catharsis. All of these bands might as well have hailed from the same doom-and-gloom, rainy Seattle scene that gave birth to grunge, but they’re from a place so uncharacteristic that you begin to reconsider the notion that geography and climate tend to engender a band’s sound.
Regardless of their true geographical placement, there’s no doubt that Three Mile Pilot have the uncanny ability to transfer you to a place that’s never sunny, nor coastal. They offer a far more desolate, desertlike soundscape. It’s that autumnal sonic trademark that has haunted their albums since the early-to-mid ‘90s, and it’s still present on their out-of-nowhere, first full-length album in over 13 years, The Inevitable Past Is The Future Forgotten. After spending years apart and developing their songwriting talent on the sidelines with The Black Heart Procession and other acts, such as Pinback, the band reunited to form a better, bolder version of their younger selves. Thirteen years later, the songwriting has returned more sharpened and focused. There’s less catharsis and angst, but emotional sincerity remains. They’re strangely upbeat on “Same Mistake”, which is piano-and-simple-guitar-hook driven. Subtle, buzzy keyboards occasionally peek in as the vocals make a grand entrance and declare, “This cold weather is chilling my bones,” as if the narrator were coming inside after a long walk on a cold November day. It seems like there’s a juxtaposition of jollity against bleakness. But don’t let the faster tempo fool you—the haunting, echoing vocal treatment makes it clear that there’s not much contentment to be had. This album’s quite the downer, huh?
There’s some truth to that flippant question. The Inevitable Past continues into no man’s land, placing its feet firmly into the fossilized footprints of its predecessors—it’s sprawling, ambling, pensive, and thematically dark, similar to previous albums Chief Assassin to the Sinister or Another Desert, Another Sea. Many bands come out of hiatus, bleary-eyed and world-weary with such radically different and half-baked ideas, and consequently, their comeback album simply doesn’t work. In the case of Three Mile Pilot, they’ve had the experience of having multiple side projects and bands to keep themselves occupied while developing their sound such that reuniting was simple—they just had to figure out how to establish Three Mile Pilot’s new sound independently of their myriad musical love affairs. Whatever they did to achieve that goal, it worked to the album’s benefit. Sure, there are tinges of The Black Heart Procession’s macabre and red desert sound, but Three Mile Pilot came back with dark, emotionally-focused dirges cloaked in energetic basslines, tighter production, and plentiful (albeit slightly cynical) woo-hoo vocal tracks. Why, there are actually legitimate rock songs to be found here.
Not all of the album’s tracks are as focused as its higher points, and oftentimes, it really does feel like a neverending and laborious trek through a Southwestern desert, exhibiting that same unfocused repetitiveness that was always present in the band’s back catalog (on this album, there’s “What’s in the Air”, which spends almost six minutes dwelling on the question, “What’s in the air we breathe?”). At any rate, these grievances are small fry compared to the embarrassment that is indie rock in 2010. Three Mile Pilot was an indie rock fixture back in the ‘90s, and while that familiar Pavement and Sonic Youth-inspired brand probably got stale after a while, The Inevitable Past is a beautiful, welcome respite in this forever-at-the-beach modern-day music scene. Put away the sunglasses and beach balls, kids—fall’s here, and truthfully, we just need more meditative downer albums like this one.