The Reading Eagle

Berks native's punk-pop venture is no bitter pill...

By Jim Speese Eagle/Times correspondent

When the punky, Boston-based band The Pills arrives for its gig July 24 in Philadelphia's Khyber Pass, it will be a homecoming of sorts for Berks native Corin Ashley. Ashley grew up in Birdsboro and played bass in a few area cover bands; the biggest names among them were Arthur's Museum and Springfield. After cutting his teeth playing in area nightclubs such as Hugo's (remember that place?) And the Silo, Ashley graduated from Daniel Boone High School and moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. After graduating, Ashley remained in the Boston area, playing with many bands before meeting up with guitarist David Thompson in line for tickets to an Elvis Costello concert. Shortly thereafter, the pair's individual bands broke up, and they formed The Pills with guitarist Clyde O'Scope and percussionist Jamie Vavra. Ashley and Thompson share vocal duties for the quartet.

With The Pills, Ashley has toured most of the U.S., playing as far west as Los Angeles and as far south as New Orleans. But, ironically enough, the Khyber Pass show will be the band's first in Pennsylvania. As Ashley wrote in a letter, "Finally my family will come and see us."

After winning a national talent search sponsored by Jim Beam Bourbon, The Pills joined the Jim Beam tour, playing shows with the B- 52's, The Smithereens, The Rev. Horton Heat and Juliana Hatfield. The band even played a show with the Village People, as sure a sign of success as any. The Pills released a vinyl single, "Scooter Gurl", in 1997 and followed it up with an album, "Wide Awake with the Pills", on the Boston-area label Monolyth. The album (which is available from the band's Web site: has been garnering air play on college stations throughout the country, including Albright's station, WXAC, where Ashley once served as a disc jockey.

Of course, all this means nothing if the music isn't very good. Luckily for Ashley and all the rest of the aspiring musicians in Berks, "Wide Awake" is exemplary. Appropriately enough, The Pills' album sounds a bit like The Monkees on amphetamines - or like the early Police without Sting's later jazz and world beat-inspired moments and all their attendant pretensions. There's also shades of the poppy catchiness of Squeeze along with the sneering cleverness of early Elvis Costello. Take this snippet from the powerful "Butternut": "As he makes a midnight snack of soggy pretzels/He says 'I feel about as useful as an eight- track in an Edsel.'" That couplet draws into the chorus: "His Christian name is mud/But the children call him butternut." Clever, frenetic, poppy and fun.

Tracks like the irrepressible "Call Me If There's Any Change" could have been written in the midst of the '60s British Invasion pop, the '70s punk explosion, the '80s power-punk resurgence, or the '90s alternative pop punk nostalgia. It works in so many different ways. There are some cool guitar moments peppered throughout this pop concoction, but no typical guitar heroics. Indeed, the printed lyrics to "Butternut" warn the listener of an upcoming instrumental break: "guitar solo (symbolizing an emotional reckoning)." It's all done in fun, and it's all done amazingly well.

This band is thoroughly listenable from start to finish. If there's any complaint, it's a minor question of dynamics. The whole album rolls out so frenetically - moving with such speed and flinging off tons of disposable hooks - that it never really lets you up for air. There are no real quiet moments. But that's OK. This is certainly no bitter pill, and I highly recommend anyone with a taste for pop, punk and good clean fun to check out The Pills. If nothing else, it's gratifying to see (or hear) a local musician doing quite well in the "outside world". Ashley is a big piece of a very good band, and he's bringing them home next Saturday night.


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