There's a pretty simple formula for what gets me going for a new band or artist: catchy, clever tunes; interesting instruments and concepts; nail your vocal harmonies, and don't be stingy with them; bigger bands are always preferred, especially those with mixed gender compositions; Canadians and Scots move to the head of the class; horns and pianos are always welcome, but not required. Line-up some or most of these, and you have a happy blogger. And I'm pretty happy this week with the discovery of the Canadian indie pop-rock octet, Library Voices, and their sophomore release, Summer of Lust, out October 18 on Dine Alone Records.
The Regina, Saskatchewan-based group – which tacks closest to New Music Tuesdays'(NMT) favorites, The New Pornographers – is the second positively startling find from that province this year, following the boogie rockers The Sheepdogs (NMT) from nearby Saskatoon. Here, extremely hooky pop confections are mixed with clever lyricism and a big sound befitting the band's sizable roster. And it begins with the album's finest stuff, the leadoff "If Raymond Carver Was Born In The '90s." This is the rarest of rare, folks: pure pop-rock majesty that is indelibly catchy with surprising depth, as multi-instrumentalist frontman Carl Johnson (and what is it with Canadian indie pop bands being fronted by guys named Carl?) explores the increasingly adult status of his age group while he hides behind songs he's not even sure are that good. Don't worry, Carl: this one passes the test – and then some – and should buy you a few more years before true adulthood comes calling.
What follows across the record's remaining nine tracks – not including a brief intro and outro voiced by some unknown Brit – does not fully match the shimmering punch of "If Raymond Carver...", but is nonetheless chock full of peppy and smart pop-rock cuts. The springy surf rock of "Generation Handclap" – the album's first single – could have easily been submitted by fellow Canucks The Arcade Fire (NMT), with Johnson veering towards Win Butler-style choral anthems and the bulk of the ensemble matching The Arcade Fire's energy and tempo step for step. And the more laidback vibe of "Reluctant Readers Make Reluctant Lovers" slides in between Canadian indie rock proginators, Sloan, and their American counterparts, Fountains of Wayne (NMT). The tune might also rank a very respectable second in the Best Canadian Litany of Authors Recording by Duo or Group category, following only the brilliant "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors" by the now (sadly) disbanded Moxy Fruvous.
Johnson utilizes his and his compatriots' instrumental talents largely to feed the overall sound, rather than focus on many individual solos or highlights, again reflecting an approach effective for A.C. Newman's Pornographers or Buther's Arcade Fire. The sole exception is the saxaphone work from Paul Gutheil, who injects snippets of jazz flavor or Clarence Clemons power depending on the song's mood. And drummer Michael Thievin is crucial in keeping the unit charged to churn out the hooks and harmonies that make the whole thing go. But harder to peg are the roles of Johnson, guitarist/keyboardist Brennan Ross and synthesizer wizards Michael Dawson and Amanda Scandrett in rounding out the sound. Now and then, there might just be a touch too much synthesizer (I'd prefer an actual piano on occasion), and a wall of horns could add some beef elsewhere, but it's nothing to get in a twist over.
The collective approach is most noticeable through the record's midsection, the trio of tracks comprised of "Que Sera Sarah," "Traveller's Digest" and "Be My Juliette Greco, Paris 1949." All are outstanding pop-rock jems, with the former starting out restrained before grabbing a meaty chorus hook and coyly referencing Dorris Day's 1956 hit of similar title. The middle of these is the album's second bona fide can't-miss – following "If Raymond Carver..." – with a plucky rhythm you might hear in a 10,000 number like "Stockton Gala Days" and, surprise, another catchy chorus. Meanwhile, the latter blisters along like the best of Fountains of Wayne, with Johnson sharing Fountains frontman Chris Collingwood's penchant for witty contemporary social commentary.
The record's concluding quartet rounds out the effort solidly, and each deserves mention. "The Prime Minister's Daughter" takes on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's absurd quote that "ordinary people don't care about art" in the face of government cutbacks to art programs by imagining Harper's daughter, Rachel, someday falling for one of the artists her father hung out to dry. "Me, Myself and ID" might be the least interesting idea here, with its fuzzy intro and armchair psychology, but doesn't automatically warrant a pass-through. The group tries a little ska on "Anthem for a New Canadia," and largely succeeds, with Thievin and bassist Eoin Hickey-Cameron laying down a nice '50s-era rock groove. And the concluding "Regina, I Don't Want to Fight" wraps things up where countless others throughout literature and music have: the recurring battle with one's hometown, and Johnson does a nice job of doing just that while sticking to their indie pop veneer, never an easy chore.
Come for: "If Raymond Carver Was Born In The '90s"
Stay for: "Traveller's Digest"
You'll be surprised by: "Anthem for a New Canadia"
P.S. Here's a good behind-the-scenes look at the group recording Summer of Lust, the sort of thing you'd expect from a bunch of nice, young Canadian kids.