In a 2007 interview with TMT, frontman Joe Kremer admitted that Pterodactyl’s walls of shred-a-tonic trebly noise might just be a phase, that there was “a chance that [their] music will get more pleasant, as time goes on.” In advance of Spills Out, underappreciated drummer Matt Marlin made similar remarks
to Boston University’s Daily Free Press, saying the new album “bridges a new excitement with slightly poppy, more sunnier stuff with the brooding, moody noisy stuff of the past.”
So it’s not surprising that Spills Out is a slightly sunnier, more pleasant endeavor than their self-titled debut. But it’s an evolution, not a clean break; the clouds of guitar noise, the layered vocals, and the tightly-coiled interlocking melodies are all still there, but this time they’re shaped around more accessible and, yes, slightly nerdy songwriting. Pterodactyl is a power trio, but you wouldn’t know it listening to Spills Out.
Lyrically, this album is clever, light fare, appropriate for a band that is named after a winged dinosaur and that stubbornly puts birds on their album covers. Universal anxieties of life vs. career (“The Break”), “feeling tethered” (“White Water”), and the dispossessions of modernity (“Allergy Shots”) are approached with the sort of apprehension that might accompany a run-in with a pterosaur. “Nerds” is the darkest song I’ve ever heard that borrowed a hook from Zelda — “Extra life, found a heart/ Warp ahead, face the truth/ The final boss was always you.”
Musically, Spills Out tips its hat to prog and jagged DC punk but remains in the hinterlands of the pop form. “Hold Still” recalls Akron/Family’s louder moments, and the repeated monotone choruses draw comparisons to Merriweather Post Pavilion, but the chord progression is more retro, like a noisier Beatles or the Scooby Doo theme on acid. “Allergy Shots” chugs along thanks to a crunchy bass line straight out of London Calling. The verses to “The Hole Night” sound a lot like The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” but you’ll hear no sprightly relative-major chorus here, just a squalling guitar solo and a Zombies-like chorus. And they pull back the density a bit for “Thorn,” a spacious number that recalls Spiritualized for its juxtaposition of gospel-tinged melodies and slacker-devotional pronouncements like “all I want is here and this and now.”
“It’s a difficult question,” Kramer mused in the same interview, “whether to shred people’s ears or make them pleased to listen to your music.” The dichotomy between the agonies of face-melting and beatific singing has long been a Pterodactyl motif, but this time the guitar wizardry takes a nonetheless threatening backseat to the structure of the songs. And while they could have cut a song or two — definitely the two filler instrumental tracks that serve no apparent purpose (“Spills In”/“Spills Out” — get it?) — Pterodactyl wear their new broken-pop sensibility well, and most of Spills Out is nothing short of pterrific.