By Meg McCarney
Friday Pilots Club introduce themselves with an understated Spotify bio: "rock band." From such a simple description, you might not expect much of any real potency from the Chicago-based rockers. However, on their debut self-titled EP (released May 7), they weave a wide variety of musical influences together to create an immediately familiar, heady sound — a thrashing blend of rock that is both hard-hitting and approachable.
The band is a rag-tag duo of classically-trained musician Drew Polovick and lead vocalist Caleb Hiltunen. Together, their raw talent and technical know-how culminate in an EP that is somehow both fresh and eerily reminiscent of the styles of other rock bands. The modest six-song project, clocking in at just twenty-one minutes, walks the line between showcasing their obvious mastery of writing catchy choruses and paying homage — often at the expense of originality — to the artists that inspired their work.
Musically, their debut wastes no time in introducing Friday Pilots Club’s rock’n’roll prowess. On title track "Look Better In Gold," the production is remarkably clean, with Hiltunen’s fiery, revving vocals preparing listeners for the auditory jolt of a EP. It’s a track that also lays out the gamut of influences whose handprints appear to have, indirectly, touched this project — a bass-heavy groove evokes Thundercat; booming vocals emulate Imagine Dragons; a clean and composed rockstar energy calls upon Arctic Monkeys’ stage presence. The styles of these artists are, thus, channeled into the band’s own adrenaline-laced alt-rock, resulting in a sleek yet subtly derivative blend. Regardless, its raucous percussion sets the scene for the thunderous boom of a powerful debut.
Another track, "Change For You" has a maddeningly catchy backing track of incessant claps, which crashes headfirst into a chorus that emulates a guitar-heavy, Y2K emo band. It’s impressively listenable, while meaning-wise, it's a fairly light song about one's never-ending race against time and, ultimately, impending death. Similarly, "I Don’t Care" hints at anxiety without committing much to greater lyrical intensity. Regardless, the accessibility factor of these simple tracks is hard to overlook, and each are nearly impossible to resist as a result. Evident with both, their sound is at once familiar and comforting; it's rock that is easy on the ears and instantly pleasurable.
Later, "Cut Me Up" carries the EP and perhaps characterizes Friday Pilots Club’s sound best. It hints at stagnation, lost love, and hiding behind facades, but the track’s meaning isn’t its main selling point, by far. Instrumentally, the track is dynamic and alive with feeling, masterfully produced, yet retaining some of its grit. An earworm of a bassline steadies the track (as is the norm throughout the EP), while gritty vocals convey a sense of ache and elevates it to the status of most passionate single on the release. Around the two-minute mark, the song erupts in a beautiful, effortless cacophony of beats and riffs, which is a stand-out moment, as well. Fittingly, though, it ends in a throaty, helpless scream, a breathless end to this powerhouse of a song.
The next track, "Breaking My Bones," addresses the process of masking mental illness. Maximal production and distortion play off of the lyrical content, which describes a need to create a suitable 'mask' to hide behind when dealing with turmoil. Ultimately, the track tackles perhaps the heaviest topic discussed on the EP, as Hiltunen wrestles with soul-searching, feeling totally vulnerable and exposed, and seeking solace in cheap and easy love. "Pretty people make the pages of the DSM," he laments, a nod to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and a shout-out to anyone who’s ever felt like a fraud within their own feelings. It’s an ode to insecurity in both mind and body.
The final track, “Glad to be Here,” is a stripped-back number, perhaps a jarring transition after such a rollicking handful of tracks before it. Armed with just Hiltunen’s voice and a minimal bassline, the track starts off disarmingly simple and slow. By the chorus, however, the track explodes into a moody, impassioned beat, a climax characteristic of Friday Pilots Club's holistic discography. The strong and soft sides of the band are on full display here, additionally asserting that they are, in fact, capable of spanning musical styles with ease. It’s a closer that effectively wraps up the loose ends of the album, honoring love that fills in the gaps that medication can’t, sighing in relief after a long-term mental struggle, and hinting at a long-awaited sense of peace and inner harmony. “The darkest grays and all the shades of blue” are referenced as a testament to the entire spectrum of feelings one experiences over a lifetime, with each given the space to be appreciated and fully felt.
In totality, Friday Pilots Club have released an EP that is, more than anything, undeniably feel-good. Its songs were clearly designed to be played and enjoyed live, as they are full of perfect call-and-response moments, utterly danceable, and crescendo into swelling choruses that will shake the walls of small venues. However, it’s evident on this project that the band has almost chosen to forego depth in favor of pursuing listenability. Thus, throughout the EP, listeners encounter lyrics that lack true emotional resonance — some tracks hint at topics like capitalism, mental illness, and heartbreak without fully committing to fleshing those ideas out or explaining them in a thoughtful way. While the band get their point across, the lyrics chosen are often so vague that listeners are left to grasp at straws and attempt to make their own meaning out of little substance. On future projects, as Friday Pilots Club continues to hone their craft and develop further lyrical prowess, it will be interesting to see if they commit more intentionally to tackling certain themes in their music.
Another impossible-to-ignore observation is that the tracks on this debut sound remarkably, and often eerily, similar to each other. While the band has hit it out of the park in terms of creating “safe bet” tracks that can easily garner mass appeal amongst alt-rock fans, they perhaps did so at the expense of individuality. Seeing the band take more sonic and creative risks would have been welcomed, as opposed to seeing them borrowing so heavily from the artists they admire. That said, however, the duo is clearly well-versed instrumentally and demonstrates incredible understanding of what it takes to make a “good” rock song.
Taken in as a whole, Friday Pilots Club reads as an approachable, light listen; sometimes, that’s all we’re looking for in our rock music. Generic themes of fear, doubt, and lost love run amok and unabashedly here. While it’s missing the vulnerability of a more potent rock record, it's still a fruitful, albeit safe, effort from this Windy City band.
Ultimately, it’s pastiche, but what isn’t? Sometimes, we just want a sure thing, a song we can tap on our steering wheel or stomp our feet to. In that, Friday Pilots Club have succeeded in providing head-banging rock’n’roll that is a genuine pleasure trip. From start to finish, their debut is airy and maddeningly fun.
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