Thursday, September 14, 2006

Records In Review: The Stills--Without Feathers

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 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!

Friday, September 1, 2006

Records In Review: Editors--The Back Room

I'll start with an admission: my compact disc collection needs another johnny-come-lately example of this particular new-wave revivalist subgenre like I need an aperture in the cranial cavity. Very good though a lot of it's been, I've had more than my fill over the past couple of years.

But, but, but...this record is good. Very good indeed.

The debut disc from this Birmingham-based foursome isn't going to shock anyone stylistically; in fact, the first 8-16 bars of the opening track "Lights" are likely all the convincing you'll need to file The Back Room between the last Interpol record and The Killers' Hot Fuss on your cd shelf (I've done a few reviews on topic, so I won't bore the tits off you by going into all of the influences of the influences--oh wait, here's another). I don't even think it would be unfair to call the record derivative. So, what is so good here? It's useful to define the band's strengths in negative terms: less sepulchral and wearisome than Interpol, less stridently commercial and faux-ennui-laden than The Killers, less young man sturm-und-drangy than Bloc Party. What's left is incredibly tight songwriting, sound and performance, and a record that for the genre is frighteningly easy to listen to. It also ends better than it starts--excellent.

The album's sound is spacious and warm and covered with a modest layer of reverb. The instrumentalism displays good taste, rather than idiosyncrasy: rigidly metrical and ringy upper-range lead guitar ("as was the style at the time"); springy bass, often in the fifths and octaves new wave/disco style; and drums that efficiently hop along on the up-tempo numbers ("Blood")and create good and stuck-in grooves on the mid-tempo ones ("All Sparks"). Singer Tom Smith sounds at times like a composite of others' timbres and mannerisms, most notably the Interpol guy, The Chameleons' Mark Burgess (the breathy upper-range in "Fingers In The Factories"--frightening!) and Ian McCulloch (other comparisons being made to Echo and The Bunnymen in the press are IMNSHO bizarre) ; mostly, though, he's a pleasing if range-limited blend of crooning and declamation. The lyrics sing well but they won't be winning any Pulitzers.

The Back Room's a very strong set, with only the standard-issue misery-guts "Fall" drawing my index finger toward the fast-forward button. My favourite three tracks are one each fast, mid and slow: "Munich," the obvious single and catchy as hell in an Interpol/Killers kind of way, but livelier; "Bullets," the loudest thing on the album, with a chunky groove worthy of the New FADs; and particularly "Open Your Arms," the climax of which'll send a shiver up your spine. If I can't think of too much to say about the rest of the material, it's because it's all really good, from the tough and declamatory "All Sparks" to the dreamy and expansive "Distance."

I'll never say that originality is overrated (promise!), but The Back Room is proof positive that it's not essential. Whether something so easy on the ear will end up having, erm, legs is open to question, but for right now, I'm happy. And that's what counts. Recommendation: high now; in a month's time..?