|Side One:||Side Two:|
Not long after I picked up the Burning Airlines reissues of Identikit and Mission: Control!, I unsurprisingly found myself on the rather calmly scheduled electronic newsletter for the label responsible for those: Arctic Rodeo Recordings. Early this year, they sent those of us on it notice of a sale on some of the last remaining copies of some of their releases, in bundled and discounted form. I didn’t know most of the artists in question–maybe not any, actually. Still, the bundles were attractive, and I had been thoroughly impressed with how ARR did the two releases I owned, so it seemed worthwhile. Eventually, I was left with a massive order from Germany sitting in my arms, straight from my regular mail carrier. While it was largely composed of 12″s, it also contained a handful of 7″s, and one 10″: this record.
It was actually pressed in two different colours, mixed yellow and white and mixed blue and white. Each had a contrasting cover (yellow with blue or blue with yellow, as seen above), but I discovered on opening that the cover is actually similar to a number of 7″ packages: a single folded sheet with blue on one side and yellow on the other, held together by the clear sleeve it’s sitting in. It’s a clever idea, and appeals to my sensibility with the option to make it match if I want to (but I like colours, so I kept the contrast). But you can see the white and yellow mix makes for a rather lovely pastel yellow. But I know we’re not that interested in the colours (are we?).¹
I know and knew little about most of the bands I ordered records from, but had faith in what I’d seen so far, and rolled the dice. I did take a brief glimpse at the groups via a “sampler” I assembled from the tracks ARR includes on their website and was quite pleased with everything I hear. I’ve been cautious about doing much listening to the records, attempting to preserve the unique experience of listening to the records–I’ve relented a few times, but most of them are still going to be new to me as I listen to them. The closest Dear Lions could come to familiarity for me is the fact that their logo for the album was designed by Patrick Carrie, who was in the band Limbeck². Otherwise? Completely new to me.³
While that old adage about judging and covers is very true, we also all do it at least a bit–if nothing else, to decide whether it looks worth listening to or reading (or whatever it may be for a particular item). The graphic design is attractive, but it doesn’t tell you much–and it didn’t tell me much either. And, as a weird wrinkle, I semi-deliberately decided not to pay attention to which artist was responsible for the sampled tracks I listened to–just burnt them to CD and played them in the car. I couldn’t have told you which song it was on the record, let alone what it sounded like.
As it turns out, I really like Dear Lions–and by the time the song I’d sampled came in, I was met with a shimmer of recognition that flowered into a very warm and pleasant familiarity (and a sense of relief–while I’m known to be very open to sounds, that doesn’t mean I like all of them, and the desire to force myself to like things is unpleasant).
The EP starts off very sparse, a single acoustic guitar, picked slowly and deliberately, arcing up and down somewhat somberly, Ricky Lewis singing in a comparable tone as “Katherine” establishes itself. It shifts to chords and adds keys nearly halfway through, but retains its pace until Lewis sings, somewhat unexpectedly, “So sentimental…/Oh no/Katherine, don’t come back,”–not because it doesn’t fit with the lyrics up to this point, but because a particular name in a song is not often met with something that is firmly negative without being flat out disparaging or angry. The sentiment is not unheard of, it’s just unusual in how it’s presented, the way that some people feel when Sam Beam swears in an Iron & Wine song–“Katherine” has a mournful edge to it, so you don’t really expect that. And when that line turns the song into a more upbeat stomp, adding bassist James Preston and drummer Charlie Walker, it seems even that much more peculiar, the part of your brain processing the lyrics alongside the sounds wondering what in the world is happening, while the side that just appreciates enjoyable sounds sees no reason to question or complain. The open, splayed, reverberating chords of desolate western cliché add yet another tinge to this sensibility, while Lewis’s voice takes on the timbre it rides for the rest of the EP–a cross between indie rock affectation and semi-camped croon, enunciated unusually clearly and extremely appealing. The hesitant, shimmering open end punctuates the established unusual sound, confirming any further expectations should not be held except in comparison to the entirety of the opening track.
“Space Sister” is the one track readily available for purchase from their bandcamp site (as opposed to the free EP) and it’s quite justified as a choice to ask for money for: Preston’s throbbing bassline and Walker’s precise drumming are the backing to the tightly clutched sound of muted and controlled guitar chords. A single verse and the second guitar turns to a distant, wobbling echo, Lewis’s voice fulfilling the promise of the tangle of croon we heard in “Katherine,” the vector of his voice holding that crooning sound but shedding the kind of campiness that comes from bands that oh-so-consiously mimic the sound, instead seeming like a natural expression of his voice. It’s an incredibly pleasant voice married to a jangling guitar free of restraint and a bassline that builds the song’s actual progressions into itself, subtle but apparent.
Preston is dominant at the open of “For the Kill”, but the bright and open chords that spread across the track from an electric seep into that dominance, the open and steady acoustic chugging along as skeleton in the background. Lewis’s voice is still in that Andrew Bird-esque range, but really shines on the chorus, the electric guitar (be it Lewis’s own or, more likely, that of Adam Rubenstein) curling in on itself from the previously open chords, but Lewis’s voice expansive, oddly screwing itself back down to drive home the song’s title at the end: “Coming through every night like a bat out of hell/Watching the city explode from the window sill/Swears like a sailor and drunk as she goes for the kill.” Indeed, this was the song that I’d heard first, though I only caught onto this at the chorus, which had always been extremely catchy, mostly thanks to Lewis’s voice.
There’s an unpretentious streak in the sound of “Darling” that swirls into Lewis’s singing style and renders it a peculiar amalgamation of classic or familiar and modern or unusual–or perhaps all of them. The pacing and tone are again strange for the most apparent of lines: “And I’m sorry that you’re so torn up/Can I say I’ve been having some fun?/You only love my depression/It’s a wonder how I found the sun/Don’t try to tell me that you want me back/I have finally surrendered/Singing blues while your heart turned black/Don’t tell me that you want me back.” There’s an audible snarl in many of the lines, even as the “escape” that inspires it is hardly a joyful occasion. There’s a country tinge hiding somewhere in hear–lyrically, perhaps, but also sonically. The song feels like a fresh-sounding version of an established one, interestingly, and it works quite well for that.
“Gun” takes the sounds of all the previous songs and blends them into a cautiously forward-leaning track, Walker’s drums restrained but working in the full range of that restraint–the other instruments shrugging and accepting their comparative bondage. Lewis’s voice is still open and clear, but less emphatic than on the previous tracks–it’s almost like a knowing closer, yet unsure if it is or could be that, not yet decided whether to build to climax or act as the much slower, lower waves washing back out. Electric guitars begin to strike out jagged chords in preparation for crescendo–and the song suddenly fades.
Each time I listen to this EP, I’m struck by how good it sounds. There’s no movement toward particularly exotic choices or ideas, yet everything still manages a newness and clarity that prevents the sense of ho-hum. The little quirks and individualistic elements of the group shine through but don’t overpower the songs, which are striking for both their comfortable impression and their single-eyebrow-raising lyrics–not quite gasps of “Wait, did he just sing–?” so much as “Hold on…” and momentary pondering upon what was just heard–no need to go back and confirm, just to re-evaluate what has been heard to this point in a slightly different light.
So far, then–Arctic Rodeo Recordings is not letting me down at all in what they’ve signed to release–small wonder, I suppose, for a small label to have a lot more control and overall unity to their taste.
- Next Up: Deftones – Deftones (the self-titled “two-fer” is purely by chance!)
¹Apparently this came up when my father nudged some of his online compatriots out this way, but I’m actually aware of the sonic problems of lots of coloured and (especially) picture disc vinyl. However, as I’ve addressed elsewhere, vinyl is often plagued with issues anyway, and only has subjective superiority, not technical superiority. The appreciation (for me) stems from the “ritual”, from the appeal, the physicality–it’s not about the sound in the first place. Again, I’m not playing on a high end stereo or a high end turntable. The pretty vinyl just adds to all of this.
²I know them from their tour with Reubens Accomplice, Piebald, Steel Train and The Format, all but one of which will appear here later, actually–all as a result of that show.
³Ed Brooks has mastered some great records, of course, but considering he is part of the Seattle-based RFI and acted as part of that studio, there’s less of an implied personal association. And the breadth of RFI’s mastering is absurd anyway–mentioning R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Botch’s We Are the Romans should make that clear. If it doesn’t, make sure to sample some tracks from each and you will see what I mean.