Album Review: Pay For Pain – ‘Pain’

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A crackling campfire. Dark woods at night. The magic of possibility hanging in the air, or perhaps impending doom. This is the imagery presented in emerging foursome Pay For Pain’s debut EP, Pain. With the album, Pay For Pain instantly announce themselves as masters of worldbuilding and cohesion. Jangly, atmospheric, and a little doomy, Pain doesn’t fit neatly in any one genre, but it marks a welcome return for its members to guitar-driven rock.

Pay For Pain sees the reunion of three former members of Tigers Jaw—vocalist Adam McIlwee (Wicca Phase Springs Eternal) and bassist/vocalist Dennis Mishko and drummer Pat Brier (Three Man Cannon)—joined recently by guitarist Bill Fries. (Fries doesn’t play guitar on the EP, but he’ll be part of the band going forward.) McIlwee, Mishko, and Brier started practicing together inconsistently in 2017, with no preconceived notions about the kind of music they would make. What sprung forth was wholly authentic; as McIlwee muses, Pay For Pain seems to have skipped the part of starting a band where everyone has to figure out how to communicate, “because we already did that with each other in Tigers Jaw.”

At once, Pain, is both entirely new and rooted in what came before, a nudge forward for indie rock and a callback to the ’60s New York rock underground and ’70s folk scene. This is accomplished through jangly guitars that recall Mount Eerie, snare shuffles, and haunting vocals. Indeed, McIlwee’s droning voice, the star of so many early Tigers Jaw songs and which the singer himself has described as “weird,” steals the show, though Dennis Mishko’s atmospheric vocals hold their own and provide a welcome additional layer on “Gatekeeper” and “When I Was 14.” 

“Without ever directly addressing what we were going to sound like, I’m pretty sure we knew we were going to incorporate more ’60s to ’80s folk/rock/alternative naturally, because it’s a common interest among all four of us,” says McIlwee. The vocalist admits he’s not skilled at writing songs in the style of his musical inspirations, which is why some of Pay For Pain sounds like his work in Tigers Jaw. (Indeed, “You Take Command of My Heart” could easily be part of Tigers Jaw’s early catalog.) “It’s just how I write songs, and that’s going to come through in anything I work on,” McIlwee says. “Pat, Dennis, and Bill are really dynamic musicians that are able to hold back on certain songs, or parts of songs, so I’m trying to embrace that more and follow their lead with this band.” The resulting restraint is effective on virtually all six tracks, with few exceptions. 

McIlwee describes the album’s closer, “Until I Walk Through the Flames,” as a “vaguely occult-tinged cowboy song—which I think was the original idea in my mind for the band.” That mood carries through “Fallen Angel,” the first single released in late April, and “When I Was 14,” where Mishko approaches something like a Texas drawl, before culminating on the final track—the EP’s strongest. (It’s also one a few lucky fans got to see performed live in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, back in August.) Those songs bring to life that witchy, twangy atmosphere McIlwee imagined, while “New York” and “Gatekeeper” sound more rooted in New York proto-punk. Throughout Pain, it’s hard not to imagine early Tigers Jaw sitting around a campfire with Fleetwood Mac and Television and Lou Reed, taking swills from a shared bottle and trading stories of longing, doom, and, very rarely, redemption. 

On “Fallen Angel,” McIlwee intones, “I had a feeling and it ruined my life / I had a premonition of my death / And it was at your hands.” They’re lyrics that would be at home in the liner notes for a Stevie Nickspenned Rumours track—the notion of love as a life-or-death proposition, a force we’re powerless to stop. Indeed, McIlwee has often looked to Nicks for songwriting inspiration, a reverence apparent even in his early Tigers Jaw tracks (“Crystal Vision,” for instance, is named for a lyric in “Dreams”).

Surely what fans of early Tigers Jaw gravitated toward as the band clawed its way out of northeast Pennsylvania and into the mainstream was the rawness that comprised songs like “Danielson” and the earliest version of “The Sun” from Belongs to the Dead (2006). A lot of that same rawness is present here—thankfully, it wasn’t polished up too much in production/engineering/mixing (by Matt Schimelfenig at The Bunk) and mastering (by Andy Clarke). The tracks are imbued with a pleasant fuzz and are lo-fi in sensibility. 

If there are any moments in which the album makes a rare misstep, it might be in the third track, “Gatekeeper,” which opens with a promising hook but fails to ever kick things into a higher gear, though there’s an attempt with a see-sawing octave change in the vocals. That repetition, however, serves other tracks like “Fallen Angel” and “Until I Walk Through the Flames” well, thanks to interesting guitarwork and stellar, shuffling drums by Brier. In the former, it’s Mishko’s bassline that holds the song together. Generally, rhythm guitar is sometimes missed, which makes Fries’ addition post-recording a welcomed one. 

Pay For Pain’s sound stands out so much in the current landscape perhaps because it’s still structured more as a passion project than a commercial venture. Ultimately, McIlwee, Mishko, and Brier left Tigers Jaw because they weren’t always willing to do what was best for the overall success of the band if it didn’t match their idea of what the music should sound like. “I think Pat, Dennis, and I usually fought any decision that might have led to more success while we were in the band if it didn’t feel 100 percent right to us—which I don’t think was always best for the band, and probably why us leaving was the best decision for everyone,” McIlwee says. “Pay For Pain hasn’t been put in a position to make decisions regarding touring, labels, etc. yet, but I think we’ve matured enough to understand that we’ll have to do some things we don’t want to do for the health of the band. There’s also the possibility that we reject everything we don’t completely want to do and still find success.”

At its core, Pay For Pain’s throwback sound is organic and unforced—a logical progression rooted in its veteran members’ experience playing together for nearly two decades. The EP’s accomplishment lies in stripping down rock to its roots while avoiding retreading the same worn path; the result is something fresh and exciting. Pay For Pain may never reach the mainstream—perhaps by choice. In listening to their debut, however, those familiar with the scene will realize right away Pay For Pain will almost surely cultivate the same cult following early Tigers Jaw did. 


Available for order now on the Dark Medicine webstore.

Michelle Bruton | @MichelleBruton

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