Back to digging as usual.
(Ernest Jenning Record Co., 2011)
Has it really come to the point in my music-listening lifetime when I hit play on a new record and am surprised when I’m greeted by straightforward indie rock? And is it weird that I’m surprised even further when I actually enjoy it? I’m teetering on the edge of the answers to those questions being “yes” and “no,” respectively, and it makes me kind of wonder where the time went, or how I’ve backed myself into this stubborn corner where the simple pleasures of a pop tune go unheeded or are even reviled for their straightforward lack of ambition. It’s why I’m the curmudgeon amongst my friends who decries The Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs as boring, in a sense tossing a bucket of cold water on a spirited discussion. It’s why I didn’t care that Radiohead released King of Limbs. It’s why I’m nonplussed at the prospect of a new TV on the Radio or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album, both of which are in the works. It’s why I based an entire review of Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding around the premise that it was “dad rock.”
So why the long preface? I’ve got to give you a little bit of background here, especially since I’ve spent an entire month sifting through records that were released in minimal quantities on cassette, most of which sound recorded to boombox inside a cardboard boat, and offer the listener quite a range of experimental qualities. That was a fun, weird month. I’d do it again in a second, and I have no shortage of material to dive into that sort of session again. But with that territory, of course, comes perhaps a longing for an easier, clearer path. Despite the fact that I might just need a change of pace, I think in the end we can all agree that The Albertans’ New Age is so well done, both in the writing and recording, that it can stand on its own as one of the most enjoyable records you’ll hear in a long time. And that’s coming from me. Weird.
So I’m unfamiliar with The Albertans. Well, was unfamiliar, although I still don’t know too much about them. Their bio says they’re based in Vancouver and their members come from Alberta (Albertans! I get it), Saskatchewan, and the U.S. Makes sense, then, that they inhabit similar stylistic niches as their Canadian brethren (and sister…en) The New Pornographers, Unicorns, Malajube, and, yes, The Arcade Fire (see especially the title track). And yet, while I don’t get excited much about those names (Unicorns aside – taken from us too soon!), there’s a joyous, uptempo vibe to New Age that cherrypicks the best characteristics of the band’s contemporaries and combines into a refreshing whole. There’s a sense of stretching, as if after a long Canadian winter slumber, and breathing in life and energy, and deep gulps of crisp morning air. If New Age was a frozen treat, it’d be a creamsicle. Well, that’s what I’d want it to be anyway.
Look no further for this energetic attitude than “Jackpot,” the title itself an expression of gleeful disbelief at something exciting. Lead Albertan Joel Bravo exclaims “There will be money on the trees!” after he and co-vocalists Krystin Monaghan and Alison Yip tiptoe through verses, culminating at the end of the song in a cathartic guitar-driven wail “There will beeeeeeeee money!” It’s not standard indie rock fare, and that’s what makes “Jackpot” and the rest of New Age so much fun – there isn’t a lot of annoying lyrical tossing off that occurs, and even though it doesn’t seem like the band is digging too deeply in its songwriting (I say seem because what do I know), they’re certainly not boring us either. The title track is equally joyous, and proudly features an anthemic sing-along chorus. (And despite what I said earlier, I do like The Arcade Fire, and their particular brand of “anthemic sing-alongs” hits a certain sweet spot that we probably all have.) That neither of these tracks overstays its welcome, and indeed most of the songs on the album barely break the three-minute mark, is a happy occurrence, as most feel like they could continue for minutes more without stopping to catch their breath.
The rest of the album fares almost equally well, and balances between restraint and extroversion. Bravo’s a great singer – he has wonderful control of his voice whether he’s whispering or belting, and his delivery is reminiscent of Unicorns’/Islands’/etc.’s Nick Thorburn’s. And while The Albertans’ sense of humor doesn’t quite reach the heights of those bands, they certainly have an ear for it. Whether or not it’s intentional, “Furniture” cribs a bit of melody from Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” expanding on the motif in a beautiful cascading vocal that one-ups the 1980s hit. It also reminds me of some movie from the same decade, although I can’t quite bring it to mind. How’s that for journalism? It’s not important in the end. What is important is New Age – remember: breath of fresh air. Dig it.
RIYL: Figurines, Unicorns, Here We Go Magic