Tuesday, January 3, 2012

sans serif

Frequent readers of this space might roll their eyes after the description of 2012's first profilees: oh, no; not another large, multi-gender, indie-pop group hailing from Canada. And those descriptors certainly line-up with very many groups profiled here, such as the New Pornographers (NMT), the Arcade Fire (NMT), Stars (NMT), Ra Ra Riot (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT) and Library Voices (NMT), this cohort of bands have no trouble receiving coverage here. But this week, that familiar template is just slightly askew, as the Halifax, Nova Scotia octet sans serif integrate more of the indie rock roots flavor of acts like R.E.M. (NMT) and 10,000 Maniacs with vaudevillian jazz interludes in the spirit of the Squirrel Nut Zippers on their full-length debut, i'm not in love (i'm in dartmouth), self-released by the band in early December.

Featuring a decidedly unpolished veneer across the record's 11 tracks, the group allows its fiddles, horns and acoustic guitars to establish a rustic foundation, while their quirky humor and sonic experimentation tacks the output away from straight alt-country (an increasingly well-worn genre these days). Such is true from the outset, with the strange synth, tuba and violin intro of "the (power) storm" hardly a prelude to the peppy acoustic pop that's actually the song's core. Primary lead singer Stephanie Gora sounds like the far less pretentious version Natalie Merchant that fronted 10,000 Maniacs in the In My Tribe era of that act's smart art pop. It's a shame the band doesn't provide instrumental listings for their various members on any of its electronic media (a quick search only yielded Gora as the lead singer), so all credits here will be non-specific. To that end, the track's jangly guitars and soaring violins merge to support Gora's straightforward vocals, while the rhythm section (whoever that is) keep a refreshingly brisk pace.

But inasmuch as the group's self-produced approach can produce fine examples of earnest and enjoyable pop rock as found on the opener, it can also lead to the occasional lack of focus, which is no more apparent on the following "landlines." After an unorganized mash of competing sounds at the front-end, the bulk of the number's limited 1:36 can't decide if it's a quick perky piano ditty or a splash of noise fuzz. Either would have been worth an attempt, but the combination of dual missions and short run time leave the listener confused. Another of the album's recurring flaws – which is also first apparent here – is the inability to wrap up a number without it collapsing into disarray. Both of these issues – while not fatal, especially for a young band just releasing its first full record for free – could likely have been tidied up with fresh set of ears behind the nobs. The same is true on proceeding numbers such as "franklin park zoo" and "(it's so hard to fake it) in the cold."

Again, the production limitations don't generally hinder the better part of the session, of which "mixed metaphors" is one of the finest. The acoustic guitar, horns and trap kit here could easily be mistaken for the jazzy vaudeville of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with its loosely arranged clutter both endearing and amusing. And later on, the nerdy pairing of "lets.all.abort.time" and "lets all redistribute wealth" is the sort of jubilantly intelligent stuff this blog attempts to locate (remember the geeky swagger of "I Found Space" from Miracles of Modern Science (NMT) in our most recent review?). The former – the record's longest track, but still only clocking in at 3:57 – imagines an intergalactic android battle interrupting a quiet afternoon picnic, while the latter is the collection's most intricately-arranged product and points to the zany infectiousness of an act like Los Campesinos! (NMT) in its chorus. The only complaint within this tandem is the overly-campy shout responses from whichever guys are providing them. With Gora providing a perfectly acceptable standard for lead vocals and some combination of fellow female bandmates Rachel Wise and Andromeda MacIsaac (could she possibly be related to superb Nova Scotian fiddler Ashely MacIsaac?) providing solid supporting vocals elsewhere, the guys' involvement here is unnecessarily silly and distracting, even though the intent of both numbers is squarely tongue-in-cheek.  

With either Wise or MacIsaac taking over lead duties on "i love you (but i don't want to touch you)" is solidly humorous and musically interesting, via the see-sawing battle between the regimental percussion, punkish bass and guitar lines and the frenetic horn and string parts. It also forms an interesting contrast with the moody rockabilly duet "calque," featuring sultry country twang from Gora and beatnick bravado from whichever guy compliments her here, before transforming into a campfire-style singalong later.

I'm not so into the college a-capella sounding ham intro of "smoke detectors," but it does settle nicely into a wistful ballad after the opening foolishness and again after a mid-number goofy breakdown that doesn't add much the concept. Closing out the affair, the title track – fronted by another guy – is again hard to take seriously. That's the thing about recorded musical comedy: it's hard to deliver when so overtly comical. A quick sample of acts known for musical comedy – Harry Chapin, They Might Be Giants (NMT), Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous – all undersold their gestures on record to allow their inherent witticism and clever ideas to stand on their own. It's not that the ideas are bad here, but that the performance gets in the way. It's something that outside experience should be able to refine on future efforts, along with the mid-track shifting changes of time signatures, chaotic closures, short run times and occasionally inconsistent rhythm (not to suggest the rhythm section isn't talented). Let's allow them that opportunity by downloading and sharing the group's promising start, hopefully yielding time in a professional studio with some well-meaning guidance.

Come for: "the (power) storm"
Stay for: "mixed metaphors"
You'll be surprised by: "lets.all.abort.time"     

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