Album Review: Pillow Queens - In Waiting

There were a number of years, when I was in my early to mid 20s, that I would more or less go out of my way to listen to an artist that was either from Ireland, or had some kind of Irish connection.

I was a junior in college, all of 20, when Damien Rice’s debut, O, arrived in the United States. It had already been out in his native Ireland for well over a year at that point, but in the fall of 2003, I was instantly taken with all of it raw, dense production and heart on sleeve lyricism. Rice, and O, were a gateway of sorts to other music from the region that was of a similar ilk—before he found success with the film Once, and his Swell Season project that contributed music to the movie, I discovered Glen Hansard’s band The Frames through their appearance as tour support for Rice at a show in Madison, Wisconsin, in the spring of 2004. 

And then it was through Hansard, and through searching the Internet, that I began tumbling down the hole of other, very sensitive, male singer-songwriters like Mark Geary, originally from Dublin—despite a few flirtations with international success, Geary never really broke in the United States; or Josh Ritter—inherently not Irish (he is from Idaho), but he built an audience across Ireland before he was able to build one in the States, thanks in part to his early associations with Hansard and The Frames.

Is there still a music ‘scene’ across Ireland? 

Yes, and it appears to no longer be dominated by earnest, sensitive, young white men with acoustic guitars; in fact, a quick Google search of “Irish Music Scene” will point you in the direction of a 2019 piece from Nylon entitled “The Irish Music Scene is on Fire,” and the very first act mentioned are the Pillow Queens.

For a website that I talk an incessant amount of shit toward—specifically just how bad the writing is, coming from two specific writers1 who seem to be generating the most content for the site—I read the headlines on Stereogum once a day to see if there is anything of note that they have provided coverage to that other sites haven’t—which is actually something that happens quite a bit. A headline during the second week of January caught enough of my attention for me to click through and actually read the piece—Watch Pillow Queens Make Their US TV Debut on Corden.

Maybe it was the band’s name; maybe it was the allure of something international; maybe it was the promise of the arrival of something new—and after skipping ahead2 in the YouTube clip to find the actual performance—I was immediately in awe of what I was watching, and what I was hearing. Within minutes, I began listening to the group’s debut full length, In Waiting, released in September of last year, and I was less than halfway through streaming it off of their Bandcamp page when I found myself ordering a copy of it on vinyl.

Rarely do I listen to music that I would describe as ‘fun,’ or ‘invigorating.’ I usually find myself drawn to things that are contemplative, or just really fucking sad. There is something wildly fun, and exciting, about In Waiting, which is what makes it so compelling and urgent of a listen. 


Pillow Queens are a relatively new act—forming roughly five years ago, and up until the release of In Waiting, the group had issued two EPs, along with a handful of singles that would find their way onto the full length’s tracklist. Founded by multi-instrumentalists and co-lead vocalists Sarah Corcoran and Pamela Connolly, the two recruited lead guitarist Cathy McGuinness and drummer Rachel Lyons to complete their sound—a ‘girl group’ purposefully comprised of four queer women, blending contemporary indie rock aesthetics with impressive, tight four-part harmonies and enormous, infectious hook-driven tunes.

In working backward through their canon, beginning with In Waiting, then listening to both the State of The State EP, and their debut, Calm Girls (from 2017), you can hear the growth and maturation in songwriting and musicianship. There’s potential and energy right from the beginning, but the group has clearly worked at sharpening their sound and songwriting, and tightening their playing, with In Waiting being the culmination of those efforts—there are truly measurable results you can hear that growth in across the album, especially in the sheer size and ambition of the refrains, like on “HowDoILook,” and “Gay Girls.”

Rarely is there a ‘perfect’ album, or one that runs from beginning to end that is utterly flawless, but it is without hesitation that I say In Waiting is damn near perfect—spanning across 10 relatively concise tunes, the album practically sprints toward the finish line with an impressive, unrelenting momentum, and only begins to alter its pacing in its final moments; when it does shift its pacing in the somber, reflective “Brothers,” and the cacophonic closing track, “Donaghmede,” the group shifts its focus away from the jangly, fuzzy indie rock the rest of the album is so deeply rooted in, along with those big pop hooks, and steers the conclusion into more thoughtful, lyrical territory. 

Pillow Queens, as In Waiting begins, don’t play their hand too soon, but they smartly know when to use a slow burn, or when to head right into bombast—it’s this give and take that they play with throughout a majority of the album, and it is this give and take that adds to the overall energy the album exudes from beginning to end. 

The liner notes to In Waiting aren’t intentionally vague in terms of who does what in terms of writing music and lyrics—the album is ‘written and performed by Pillow Queens’—and while the pop sensibilities in the structure of a bulk of these songs can distract slightly from the words, there is an impressive poetic ambiguity to them, even right out of the gate on the album’s simmering, soaring opening track, “Holy Show.”

The queer identity of the women in Pillow Queens is both personally important to them, obviously, but it also plays a role in the songwriting. “I’ve got your eyes and cheeks in front of me,” “Holy Show” begins. “Filling the space between my thighs.” Then, much later on the album’s second side in the similarly slow burning, then bombastic “Gay Girls,” there is a satirical, self-effacing quality to the song’s ramshackle, rollicking chorus—“Well I won’t worry about the gay girls. I pray for them when I wring my hands.”

It is, though, In Waiting’s hook-driven melodies that are among the most memorable things about the record as a whole, outside of the group’s charming Irish dialect—something that doesn’t come through all of the time, but when it does, it provides an unintentional moment of whimsy to American ears.

Pillow Queens are not afraid to hide the ambition of their interest in writing ‘pop’ songs, and you can hear that as “Holy Show” begins to take off, and the song loses itself in the way the refrain’s rhyme scheme tumbles into place with the music: “Spare me all the details/Send me on your regales,” and “If you remember a thing about it—show me on the playback/Why’d I even say that? I don’t remember a thing.” 

The infectious nature of these songs is most noticeable midway through In Waiting’s first side, specifically on the double shot of “Handsome Wife,” and “HowDoILook.” “Handsome Wife” is powered by an ascending lead guitar riff that serves as break between verses, and a somewhat downcast, lyrically speaking, refrain that is starkly juxtaposed against the snarling, fuzzed out arrangement, while “HowDoILook” might be the most fun song on the record. Opening with a crisp rhythm from drummer Rachel Lyons, with huge strums of the electric guitar coming in over the top of it, with a bit of a call and response happening vocally: “It took a while but I don’t mind,” followed by all four members of the group asking the question, “How does my body look in this light?” From there, the song takes a dream, gorgeous turn before absolutely blasting off in the refrain.

The tone, and pacing, of In Waiting begins to shift with “Harvey,” arriving near the end of the album’s second side. A dreamy, swooning slow jam, the arrangement is structured around slow, steady percussion, and a glistening guitar progression that, along with the gorgeous harmony vocals, and overall feeling of the song, calls to mind a kind of 1950s, malt shop nostalgia. 

For an album that, at first glance, is a ‘rock’ record made by what could off-handedly be described as a ‘rock’ band, and for an album that is steeped in all kinds of electric guitar—sometimes crunchy and distorted, other times, incredibly clean in tone—there is a lot, a lot, of moments of small beauty that, after only a few listens through, you begin to notice, and can get lost in. “Brothers,” the penultimate track on In Waiting is one of those moments. One of the slowest, and most pensive tunes on the record, it also comes together with a surprising amount of sweeping, powerful grandeur. 

There is a bittersweet wistful nature to the lyrics to “Brothers”—it, like the track that follows, are the songs on the album that are perhaps the most evocative in their ability to place you not in the Ireland that attracts tourism—lush, green, full of hills and castles along the shore, but the Ireland that the people who live there know; the Ireland that they breathe in every day, and the Ireland that is home to family and friends, and it’s this depiction of life that casts a bit of a harrowing shadow across the final moments of In Waiting. 

So sorry since we hit eighteen—I’ve been really coming up short,” “Brothers” begins, then shortly after that—“So teary eyed, I’m you and are me.” Written as both a tribute to the men in the lives of the band members, as well as a response to a family loss. Released as an early single from the album in 2019, in a short blurb about the song with The Fader, the group calls structure of the verses, “quick snapshots of the aftermath from the loss of a friend within a very tight knit group,” adding that there is an element of fear throughout the song because it deals so directly with mortality—but that even in that mourning, it is ultimately about the love you have for your “chosen family.” And there is no clearer indicator of that than the mantra-like refrain that the group returns to throughout, using it as a means to build “Brothers” to a triumphant height: “There goes the man I want to be—I love my brothers and my brothers love me.”

In Waiting ends with the longest track on the album, “Donaghmede,” which the group very deliberately builds to an explosive peak, and lyrically, it is among the most poetic, an ambitious, in its use of vivid imagery. 

Stay for a week in sunny Donaghmede with me,” each “verse” begins—“Sleep when we’re dead,” comes after in the first verse, with the second time being even more vague and evocative: “Maybe I won’t fold up so cold…every memory I retrieve I believe is good for me.” It also ends with both a sharp, almost desperate  contrast of reassurance and a pleading, “Stay,” and “I think we’re safe in the warm embrace of the Northern bay,” though it is only vacuously implied what the protagonists of the song are seeking safety from. 


If I had discovered In Waiting upon its release in September, or even in the months that followed, prior to the laborious effort in making my ‘year end’ list of albums, it would have found its way into the top 10, without question. Guitar-driven indie rock, as a genre, or even a blanket descriptor, can be incredibly bland, forgettable music at times, but Pillow Queens have made an album that is exciting in ways that music rarely is for me.

Intelligently blending sing-a-long pop hooks with fuzzy, jangly instrumentation, the band knows how to walk the line between writing a song that is fun or infectious, and still being incredibly thoughtful within the lyrics, bending the arranging to meet that thoughtfulness when it is needed. In Waiting is an audaciously brilliant debut effort, and with it, the women that make up the Pillow Queens have created a real statement of beauty that resonates long after the record has ended.

1- Should I continue to talk my shit about Stereogum? Maybe. Shout to to Chris Deville and Tom Breihan—y’all are both just fucking terrible.

2-I do not fuck with James Corden at all but he seemed very enthusiastic about having them as guests on his show. Before the performance airs, his interview with two members of the group is very rough and awkward. 

In Waiting is out now as a digital download and on vinyl, via Stargazer.