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Toni Morrison and Carol Shields advise writers to pen novels they’d like to read but don’t exist. Pillow Queens have on a couple of occasions said that growing up they’d have loved to have seen a band just like them. Modern rock‘n’roll too often rewards retro parroting, so attempting to fill a void is a noble endeavour. But you don’t construct great art out of honourable intentions. The eternal actuality of rock never changes: the tunes have to shred.
Pillow Queens’ debut album In Waiting is something that cannot be mimicked or faked. The band lay out the meaning of the title with a short note on their website: they’re not willing to wait for lost loves to return, for capitalism to collapse, for the empathic revolution to arrive.
Most striking to me is the assertion that they are sick of waiting for “spin to die and authenticity to be valued”. The narratives that will be written around a rock group of queer women will likely be spun as a gimmick and this is outside of their control. All we can and should do is admire In Waiting — a classic Irish guitar music debut, a proud affirmation of queerness, the power and the peril of organised religion, and a love letter to Dublin at a time when Covid-19 is seeing the chasm between the capital and the rest of the country widen.
With the experience each member gained in other bands, Pillow Queens arrived pretty well formed. To cherry pick an early highlight, “Rat”, from their 2017 EP Calm Girls, is an enjoyable flip on the American teen flick soundtrack, aping the general vibe of the music while inserting more Irish lingo. But the four piece have grown in the past three years, becoming more muscular, adding more components to their machine. The result of the journey is In Waiting, 10 rock songs that come together as an expert piece of album-making.
Opener “Holy Show” rides into view on the back of Pamela Connelly’s bassline. When Rachel Lyons’ twacked drums and the neatly plucked guitar notes hit — Sarah Corcoran, Cathy McGuinness and Connelly share axe duties throughout the record — you can sense the spirit of Jesus and Mary Chain circling overhead. But Pillow Queens are a group that synthesise their influences. Though there is a tangible appreciation of rock history throughout, the reference points are never driven so hard the wheels fall off. And if they do sometimes hit their clichés — the “ooh ooh” chorus on “Child of Prague” feels like a variation on 1,000 doo-wop vocal patterns — it would feel like the height of rock crit nitpicking to say they depreciate the album. Simply put, In Waiting is a great set to listen to.
Helping to elevate Pillow Queens out of the pack is Connolly’s lead vocals. See how, with a heavily accented style, she leans into the syllables on “Gay Girls”: “Well, I won’t worry about the gay girls/I pray for them when I wring my hands,” Connolly bellows. No “ay” sound goes without a preceding “oh” — later, “my way” becomes “mo-ay way.” Some ears will take time to settle to her style; others will immediately admire its distinctness.
While “Gay Girls” is wonderfully anthemic, the group change up their approach on “HowDoILook”. In its preaching of self-acceptance (“It took a while but I don’t mind/How does my body look in this light?”), the song doesn’t shy away from the fact that we are sensitive to the everyday cruelty of enforced body standards: “It’s hard to right your wrongs but you won’t admit your flaws/And oh god they’re beautiful.” “HowDoILook” is sung by Corcoran whose more conventionally tuneful on-mic presence offers a natural counterpoint to Connolly’s haphazardness.
The release of songs from In Waiting has been fairly scattered over the past couple of years and certainly its hard to imagine the same sessions that produced a pocket guitar pop tune like “Gay Girls” also served up the bigger, lonelier “Liffey”, where the guitar lines are wrangled out to skyscraper size. (The album is credited as being produced by Tommy McLaughlin in Attica Audio Recording Studios, Donegal). But the dueling production values work in the record’s favour. Pillow Queens might only be on album number one but they’ve quickly grasped that combining ear-worm singles (or “gateway tracks”) with great deep cuts is the surest way to make a super pop record.
It’s the last three songs that push In Waiting into greatness. The soft melody and gently raked guitar chords of 1950s pop pastiche “Harvey” is followed up by the maturity of “Brothers,” which if you take it on its face is an ode to sibling appreciation.
Then comes “Donaghmede”, a tribute to Connolly’s “sunny” home suburb. The song builds and crescendos like a classic album closer, with Pillow Queens envisioning a week of tranquility spent on Dublin’s northside, offering a vision of the city much missed. The band never could have known this would be the stuff of fantasy when they cut the track, but in rock‘n’roll sometimes fantasy is what counts. “Donaghmede” puts the exclamation point on an album for the 2020s – a decade that has yet to truly start.