Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The Dears: Critics of Cool [Chord]

Chord [site currently down], Issue 40, November 2006

Gang of Losers is about the nerds, the individuals, the ones who are only uncool because they don't follow the herd. Aptly titled, it captures the experience of feeling like a loser, something even the cool kids can grasp.

If you ask The Dears' frontman Murray Lightburn what he thinks about the Canadian indie scene, he'll answer, "Why wasn't anyone asking about it ten years ago?" Maybe it's because a large chunk of the audience following today's surge of Canadian imports was still playing on jungle gyms ten years ago. "Canada is just a place," says Lightburn, but he adds, "The Dears have Canadian passports, for which we are truly grateful." It's no wonder, though, that Lightburn brushes the question off. His band is an aberration from saccharin-sweet pop embraced by today's popular Canadian indie bands. The Dears craft a unique sound from contemplative and dark lyrics layered over rich, orchestral compositions—and happen to hail from Montreal.

The sextet has also been at it for a lot longer than some of the other Canadian bands now popular in the United States and worldwide, but The Dears have remained largely under the radar. The core members of the band—Muray Lightburn, Natalia Yanchak, George Donoso, and Martin Pelland—have been working together for six years, when it first started as a sort of singer/songwriter vehicle for Lightburn. After a series of additional instrumentalists and guitarists who didn't quite fit, the complete lineup, which includes Valerie Jodoin-Keaton on keyboard and flute and Patrick Krief on guitar, has been together for two years. "The lineup we have now kind of feels like a 'forever' line up, very thick and thin," says Lightburn. "This lineup has been through the most shit together and even our road crew is like family. We would probably kill for each other."

While The Dears have been compared to Britpop bands like Blur and their frontman himself to Morrissey, the similarity is far from uncanny. He's not trying to emulate. He has taken something away from everything he's listened to, even the string and horn arrangements of Isaac Hayes tracks. "I think that in my case, music chose me—us, for that matter," says Lightburn. "Sometimes it's a blessing; other times, a curse." Like many musicians, Lightburn's relationship with music started at an early age. "The first song I remember barely singing was 'Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,'" he reminisces. "Apparently I made people cry. I was, like, five."

The impact he had on that church congregation may have been accidental, but the impact of his work today is not. Lightburn looked to achieve something that feels much more organic than the usual studio album that results from tweaking and splicing takes. Recorded in Lightburn's home, Gang of Losers is much more bare than No Cities Left, their acclaimed 2004 release, and 2000's End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story. Every song on the album is a single, continuous take of that track without edits or punch-ins. The texture on Losers comes partly from the intricate compositions, but also from the raw simplicity of the production process. It opens with "Sinthro," which sounds like the breakdown in an M83 track, and turns into a strong rock/pop album from track two on. The album is cohesive and successfully achieves Lightburn's goal.

Gang of Losers is about the nerds, the individuals, the ones who are only uncool because they don't follow the herd. Aptly titled, it captures the experience of feeling like a loser, something even the cool kids can grasp. He's frustrated by today's obsession with hip, a frustration succinctly captured by this bit from "Bandwagoneers": Heaven knows that I'm a freak / Heaven knows that we're all faking it. In the narrative "Ballad of Humankindness," Lightburn laments about the depressing state of nightly news and makes an appeal to humanity, crooning "I think it's time that we all learned forgiveness." Lightburn explains, "I write from a microscopically personal point of view because it's all I know. I vent because if I don't, my hands may wind up around some person's throat." The lyrics on Losers are poignant and sung beautifully in Lightburn's polished voice.

The music industry and the various scenes spawned from the way it functions seem to fuel his writing. His view of the industry is, in fact, rather grim. "Everyone is confused and no one knows what to like or what's any good. Majors, Indies, doesn't matter," he says. "The whole concept of the music industry is completely fucked. It's like a giant web that's been spun for a thousand years and we're all trapped. God help us." Could more bands like The Dears help break the industry's grim traditions? Let's hope.

— Jess Hemerly, November 2006

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