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The Haul 2010: Bottomless Pit's Blood Under the Bridge

Bottomless Pit – Blood Under the Bridge 2LP+CD – Comedy Minus One, 2010 – $20

Bottomless Pit's Blood Under the Bridge

I decided to go two routes with this review for an obvious reason. The second route is really long.

The short version: Bottomless Pit adds to their flawless track record with another superb release. Expanding on the surging melodies of the 2008 Congress EP, Blood Under the Bridge returns to straightforward Silkworm-esque rock in “Summerwind,” “Late,” and “Is It a Ditch,” explores mellow ground on “Rhinelander” and “Q.E.D.,” and closes with a searing Andy Cohen solo in the towering “38 Souls.” Book this album for the highest reaches of my year-end list, mirroring the positions of Hammer of the Gods and Congress.

The long version: Bottomless Pit is an incomparably personal band. Each release reflects upon the key fact of the group’s existence: without the reckless vehicular homicide that took the life of Michael Dahlquist, Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen would still be releasing new Silkworm albums every two years. Instead they chose to forge ahead with a new outfit, swapping Midgett’s sharp, expressive bass lines and Dahlquist’s thunderous kick drum for Midgett’s new baritone guitar, bassist Brian Orchard’s deep, minimal lines, and former Seam drummer Chris Manfrin’s dexterity and precision. The change in rhythm section character would speak volumes if Midgett and Cohen didn’t actively address Dahlquist’s passing in their lyrics. Midgett is often hauntingly direct: “When you get it in your mind to live again” from “The Cardinal Movements,” “You were a king when you knew what you were worth” from “Human Out of Me,” “People are frightening / When they don’t got a reason to live” in “Pitch.” Cohen opts for veiled storytelling, contributing “Dead Man’s Blues” to Hammer of the Gods and noting how “Nothing is sadder than chasing a ghost” in “Fish Eyes.” Both approaches are gut-punches.

Yet to listening to Bottomless Pit in the sole context of Michael Dahlquist’s death ignores the universality of their lyrical themes. Similar to how Fugazi succeeds at making politically charged rock by avoiding explicit details, Bottomless Pit adds an abstracted level of catharsis to accompany the autobiographical reading. Is a specific song—the astounding “Leave the Light On” from Hammer of the Gods, for example—about Dahlquist, Midgett’s mindset, or just a general feeling? To my ears, all three are present. This ability to translate personal experience into commentary on the human condition is all too rare.

Bottomless Pit at the Middle East Upstairs, July 2008

It’s not as if Silkworm lacked this capacity. Midgett’s “Xian Undertaker” from It’ll Be Cool stares death in the face and offers a knowing smirk. Cohen’s “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” from Firewater captures moments of fleeting brilliance in suffocating discontent. I could go on and on. (Seriously: Go get Firewater, Lifestyle, It’ll Be Cool, and Libertine. For starters.) The difference is that Bottomless Pit’s album-to-album development is intertwined with a sense of personal progression that acts as a frame of reference for each song, each album. When the regret and subcutaneous tension of Hammer of the Gods blossomed into the resiliency of Congress, I felt both a profound sense of optimism from the songs (especially “Red Pen”) and a strange pang of relief that Tim Midgett was less consumed by grief within them. This developmental arc points in multiple, often divergent paths on Blood Under the Bridge, which prevents me from coming up with a single-line summary for how it shifts from the thematic base of Congress. That makes Blood harder to nail down, but by no means diminishes the returns.

The first two songs are deceptively nonchalant, starting with the feel-good rhythm and intertwined guitar melodies of the seven-minute-long “Winterwind.” Tim Midgett’s lyrics encourage a fresh start: “Waiting on deliverance is just like waiting on a tree / That you can’t get out from under / Get out from under it now.” A familiar riff trickles in during the song’s lengthy outro: a guitar part from Silkworm’s “Bar Ice.” It still throws me for a loop, a glance back at the past even as the lyrics encourage a step away. You still get that step away with the mellow introspection of the percussion-free “Rhinelander.” Midgett’s line that “There’s no such thing as too much time” makes me long for more time with the idyllic guitar interplay, not regret missed opportunities or time wasted.

Andy Cohen’s “Summerwind” breaks the calm by spinning the elliptical refrain “It’s not nothing I would do again” over jagged chords. “We lost it all and started fresh” stands out from the hypothetical lyric sheet (although “I saw the devil on a commuter train” is classic Cohen), applying just as easily to a failed romantic relationship as his old band. The up-tempo swing continues with “Late,” a brisk rocker that pulls Midgett out of distanced contemplation with a downright angry chorus of “So many fuckers in this world / To line up / And trade for you.” The album’s middle point, “Dixon,” is a Southern rock instrumental, an enjoyable lark that wouldn’t have seemed plausible on either of Blood’s predecessors.

Blood downshifts over its next few songs. Midgett’s mid-tempo “Kiss Them All” ruminates on its refrain, “I’ve been waiting on the real you all along,” then lingers on an extended, drum-focused outro. Cohen’s “Is It a Ditch” fuels his nimble riffing with a twinge of reticence. Midgett’s “Q.E.D.” returns to the dreamy contemplation of “Rhinelander,” ambling through some heady territory with “Always shit to do / When I’m dead I will still have a list / But sometimes things just feel complete.” His wordless coos and Chris Manfrin’s intricate shuffle elevate the song from those idle thoughts.

Bottomless Pit at the Middle East Upstairs, July 2008

Blood Under the Bridge closes with Cohen’s “38 Souls,” a howling storm of distorted riffs, spine-chilling vocals, and passionate soloing. The song begins as one of his darkly comic narratives—“I had collected 38 souls / Needed two more to reach my goal / What good are they anyway / Left them stacked up in the foyer”—but ratchets up the intensity with the powerful delivery of “When I woke up they were gone / I had to let them get away.” Turning that couplet into an imperative (“When I wake up they’ll be gone / I have to let them get away”) underscores the desperation in his voice. Cohen has mostly avoided his penchant for ragged, cathartic solos in Bottomless Pit, but the scorched-earth solo he plays on “38 Souls” instantly joins his highlight reel (along with “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” and “Tarnished Angel” from Firewater). “38 Souls” is a visceral, devastating assault, one Bottomless Pit was wise to put at the end of the album.

There isn’t a song on Blood Under the Bridge that I don’t enjoy, but how they fit together is less obvious than it was on Hammer of the Gods or Congress. “Dixon” felt out of place on the first few spins. “Rhinelander” and “Q.E.D.” seemed overly muted, especially in comparison with the blazing intensity of “38 Souls.” As I spent more time with the songs, the path from Congress to Blood became clearer. Blood takes firm steps in new directions, but still looks over its shoulder at the past, which appears in the recall of Silkworm’s “Bar Ice” in “Winterwind,” the fiery solo of “38 Souls,” and lyrical references to Dahlquist both oblique and explicit. The thoughts of both singers wander, but Blood starts with Midgett’s imperative (“Get out from under it now”) and ends with Cohen’s (“I have to let them get away”). “Easier said than done” is the clichéd moral, but as anyone who’s lost a loved one will attest, those memories continue to pop up at unexpected, affecting times. They will certainly pop up when listening to Blood Under the Bridge, a testament to Bottomless Pit’s foremost strength: translating their own experiences into humanistic rumination of the highest order.

If you live in Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, or Columbus, you have a chance to see Bottomless Pit this weekend on an increasingly rare outing from their home base of Chicago. I’m looking forward to catching them on Friday for the first time since an excellent 2008 show with Chris Brokaw and the Kadane Brothers. If not, you can order their three albums direct from the group or from Comedy Minus One. The vinyl pressings are about as nice as it gets—45 rpm LPs, thick gatefold sleeves for the full-lengths—and include a copy of the CD.