I can't tell you how tickled liberal pinko I am when I find Canadian indie-rock bands that I really like. Every record I listen to, it's the same old story: "it's okay, but, but, but..." I was starting to think that it's genetic, or perhaps the product of some youthful trauma involving maple syrup.
Enter The Stills. Album number two from the Montrealers is a serious departure from their very good full-length debut Logic Will Tear You Apart, which put an Interpol-type instrumental approach plus a pinch of bar-band attitude to work in dreamy jangle-pop and mid-paced power-pop settings. Drummer and main guy David Hamelin has taken up the vacant guitar position, which won't cause widespread rending of garments among members of the percussion fraternity, truth be told, and has taken over the bulk of the lead vocals. I'm not sure I can really judge the effect the latter has had, as, like the Torontonian in the amazon.com reviews I have a hard time telling Hamelin and erstwhile lead Tim Fletcher apart--it's more in the delivery than the timbre. But more on that anon. Although the songwriting still leans toward the broad strokes and big chords, the band has ditched the Interpol thing, with its pounding 1-2-3-4 drums and ringing guitars, in favour of a style that encompasses folky roots-rock ("In The Beginning"), revivalist orchestral pop ("Destroyer") and piano-bar languor ("Outro"). There's a lot of Hammond organ and galloping dum-ba ba dum-ba ba dum rhythms.
If I was to make a sloppy and unsupportable analogy, I'd say that Logic is to Without Feathers as Modest Mouse's The Moon And Antarctica is to Good News..., in that both bands have gone from a fairly contained sound and static instrumentation to full and at times flamboyant orchestration*; also, there's a similar fearlessness about letting all kinds of styles and generic signifiers hang low and loose. In The Stills' case, the experiment is mostly successful, but there are a few spots on the album where single-mindedness would have been beneficial. The Rufus Wainwrightesque** (Hamelin actually sounds a bit like RW, mixed with The Strokes' Julian Casablancas' croakiness) addendum to the straight-ahead rocker "The Mountain" doesn't really cut it, nor does the showy intro and overripe finale to the otherwise catchy "It Takes Time." Distractions, distractions.
The album is at its best when the songs make sense from beginning to end and when the band let themselves be themselves. The Fletcher-penned-and-sung "Helicopters" is an excellent example and a great piece. It starts out really restrained, with an eighth-note piano rhythm, percussion and plucked string sounds all very reminiscent of the Arcade Fire's mid-tempo mutant new wave, then builds to a great finale of catchy chorus vocal hook and booming guitars. Other really good 'uns are opener "In The Beginning," which maps out the band's new-found rootsy territory very well; "Oh Shoplifter," a booming jangle-pop number arranged around acoustic guitar and handclaps; and "The House We Live In," the pensive and restrained hymnal finale to the disc. I probably lean more toward the guitar-driven material, but "In The End" is a particularly nice piano-based tune, unlike the very pedestrian "Halo The Harpoons." "Baby Blues" is the track most reminiscent of album number one. "Destroyer" makes up for what it lacks in subtlety with vibrancy, a bold brass section and great lyrics.
Both Fletcher and Hamelin are better at writing what I'd consider to be vocal hooks rather than melodies per se ("Destroyer" being a good example from this album, and maybe "Love And Death" from Logic), but for reasons which I can't quite pin down I find that overall the vocals don't match material as nicely on Without Feathers; perhaps the busier arrangements require a busier vocalist. Your thoughts on the matter may be submitted for review by the board.
I can't think of any other relative comparisons that would lead me to pick one album over the other; you'll either prefer the new style or you won't. I suspect that, as a more "adult" sounding record, Without Feathers might not have the same appeal for the younger listener. But, really, who cares about them? As I always say, excellent hearing is wasted on youthful ears. Recommendation: pretty damn good, but could have been better.
*The Stills do it with less, admittedly. Most of the principal arrangement is bass, drums, guitar, keys...just used in diverse ways.
**What gives with all of the whiny bitch Canuck singers? I want real men, damn you!