Pretend Collective’s eponymous debut opens with unison pianos populating a great depth of space. A vivid sonic ecosystem gradually reveals itself as rich, organic tones unfurl from the far reaches of the mix. The groove kicks in and a chorus of unearthly voices provide the scenery for the record’s ethereal thesis statement: Higher Than a Flying Cloud Castle Made of White Light.
Thus Pretend Collective’s debut sets its own heady tone. This music is worthy of a long walk with a good pair of headphones. It goes to work on the deep, quiet places within you. To listen along is to feel your place in an ever-changing landscape.
“I had come to rely on my favorite music as a form of transportation,” says Pretend Collective vocalist and songwriter Mike Reilly. “It took a long time to realize that the way to make the listener feel like a traveler in space is to create musical space for the listener to travel through.”
Before Pretend Collective, Reilly made a name for himself as drummer and band member with Hoots & Hellmouth, Ha Ha Tonka, The Spring Standards, and a long list of artists based out of Philly and New York. A veteran of the national club and festival circuit, he became known in growing circles as a songwriters’ drummer, exploring hybrid setups and employing a wide variety of percussion in his performances, delivering unique character to each project. His resume includes extensive work in the theatre world: offstage in pit-orchestras, on-stage in new and old works alike, and even originating the role of the villain, Jessup McElroy, in Red Roses, Green Gold, the 2017 Off-Broadway jukebox musical featuring the music of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. In the fleeting off-hours between international touring, making records, and theatrical work, Reilly holed up in his home studio and crafted exhaustive demos of the songs that would comprise Pretend Collective’s first full-length album.
There is a pervasive symmetry at work here. Motifs are established and revisited. Titles reprise themselves as lyrics re-colored. Side B repeatedly echoes Side A as it arcs thematically toward conceptual culmination. Reilly stops short of calling his debut a concept record: “We’ve assembled something here which nods in that direction, but it’s a little scrappier than all that. If there’s a concept at work, it’s the cultivation of vibe and flow.”
Pretend Collective is a fluid entity. “It depends on who’s in the room. It’s sort of a post--band position to take, but we like making new friends,” says Reilly of the evolving lineup. The collective first presented itself to the world during a yearlong residency at Greenwich Village’s famed The Bitter End where he organized and ran a bi-weekly, late-night, invited jam session. Here, Reilly’s original material was unveiled and shaped by some of New York’s best young players.
The recorded ensemble consists primarily of working Philadelphia and New York musicians, many of whom tour globally, play on Broadway, and collaborate with some of the biggest names in music. The album features the soulful, searing electric guitar work of Aurélien Budynek (Marky Ramone, Cindy Blackman Santana); the virtuosic flavor and atmospheric precision of Jaron Olevsky and David Streim (Amos Lee) on Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes and piano; melodious upright and electric bass by Jonathan Davenport (Dirty Projectors, Buried Beds); Bryan Percivall’s (Britney Spears) vintage sensibilities on bass guitar.
One source of particular excitement is the soaring lead guitar work by Tom Deis ( Uni Ika Ai, Via Audio) on the album’s first single: Hello, Lonely Road.
“The tune is a sort of love letter to the cyclical process of romantic entanglement and estrangement, which becomes a stand-in for the peaks and valleys that comprise life,” Reilly says of the record’s distinctive centerpiece. “A lot of the feedback is that it’s Beatles-y, but I know what that’s really about; people like to say that about a song that goes a few interesting places harmonically. That’s what I’m in it for: a harmonic journey.”
Individual accomplishments aside, Reilly proudly holds each of his collaborators in the highest musical esteem:
“If you want people to love what’s coming through the speakers, you’ve got to love what you’re laying down, what you’ve discovered together. I love these players and I love what they have brought to this music. Enthusiasm for this record was really shared across the board. Imagine what we can do together. That’s what we mean by Pretend Collective.”
“Making a record like this is not for the faint of heart,” says co-producer and engineer Matt Teacher (Bon Jovi, Boyz II Men, mewithoutYou). “It took over two years to find all the right musicians, to test ideas out, to fearlessly throw ideas away and start again. At the beginning of this project I knew we were onto something good, but I could only see the individual puzzle pieces being put into place as Mike presented them. At times I wasn’t sure how they all would fit together, but by placing complete faith in his vision and holding on for the ride, the grand landscape was slowly revealed and I sat back in awe as the individual pieces—each individual’s contribution—came together to create something wonderful, strange, and captivating.”
The album reaches its emotional peak with These Harder Days, a deeply personal sentiment penned by Reilly in the difficult period following the devastating loss of a childhood friend to suicide. It’s the only track on the record to feature additional voices—nearly thirty of them—hometown friends and families spanning three generations who gathered one evening in 2018 for a very special recording session to commemorate a son, brother, friend, and immense musical talent. The record winds down as the lyric concludes: “We find each other singing in the clear.”
Following the Giving Groove model, all label proceeds benefit Nuçi’s Space , a charity who envisions ending the epidemic of suicide and inspiring a culture free of the stigma attached to brain illnesses and its sufferers by supporting a community-wide effort that focuses on education, prevention and access to appropriate treatment.
Limited edition (500), gold foil numbered, clearwater blue vinyl.
Pressed with love at Gotta Groove Records, Cleveland, OH.