Sunday, August 10, 2014

album review: 'high noon' by arkells

So I've mentioned in the past that rock music never really died out in the mainstream in Canada, at least not in the same way it did in the United States. Maybe it was CRTC content restrictions dictating the radio had to play at least some Canadian content and more of it happened to be rock than pop, but the ultimate result is that a burgeoning Canadian rock scene has thrived over the past four or five years even as the pop rock boom collapsed. And it's not just Canadian rock either - a steady diet of acts like Metric and Tokyo Police Club have meant that Canadian radio is more receptive to other indie acts, which has meant songs like 'Come With Me Now' by KONGOS have broken the top 10 here where they struggle south of the border.

Now I could brag and say that the reason rock never really died up here in the mainstream is because it's just better than down south, but honestly we've got our fair share of crap up here too. The band I'm going to talk about today, however, definitely does not fall into that category. This band is called the Arkells, a Hamilton-based band who dropped their fast-paced, rough-edged debut in 2008 and immediately started attracting serious buzz. And it wasn't just the sticky, melody-driven riffs or Nick Dika's prominent bass or the songwriting that was a lot more clever, nuanced, and yet shockingly earnest and steeped in Canadian imagery than you'd expect, but the band had a knack for ridiculously catchy hooks that effectively sealed their fate and made a pop turn inevitable. That turn happened with their second album Michigan Left, a breezier album that brought in more keyboards and a hazier brand of production that recalled nothing less but a rougher, louder, faster, less-subtle version of The War On Drugs - and yes, that's a high compliment indeed. It helped matters that the songwriting on that second album was just as strong, an excellently framed road movie of a record that showed songwriting that could get both personal and political.

So you can bet I was psyched to discover they were dropping a third album titled High Noon, so I checked it out: how did it go?

Ugh, this is frustrating - because while High Noon by the Arkells is good, it's nowhere near great and it is probably their weakest release thus far. To say I was disappointed after several listens is a bit of an understatement - this is one of my most hotly anticipated releases this year, and it really didn't pan out nearly as well as I was hoping. And what's worse is that I can point to exactly the areas that didn't work, and I can still acknowledge that on a certain level, this record's not bad and still does have parts that work. But really, it didn't click for me and I know exactly why.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production - and at first glimpse, it seems like the most natural progression for the band towards a defiantly pop sound, especially reminiscent of the guitar and synth backed pop music of the 80s and even moreso of that Bleachers album Strange Desire that gets better with every listen. The drums are supplemented by drum machines, the guitar and keyboards are cleaner than ever, and the choruses are supported with some solidly catchy melodies that are pretty damn memorable. And there are melodic moments I really did like: the opening keyboards on 'Cynical Bastards', the synth line on 'Dirty Blonde', the noisy crescendo on 'Hey Kids', the fast-paced strumming that build into that melody on the chorus on 'Leather Jacket', the heavy chugging riffs balanced against the piano on 'Crawling Through The Window' unlike anything else on the album, and the richly orchestrated darkness on the odd album closer 'Systematic'. Let me stress that this album does get better as it proceeds more towards its rock roots - and it has less to do with the composition and more the production. Tony Hoffer's choice to go for a more lush instrumentation does occasionally pull some dividends, especially on 'Systematic', but for the most part it de-emphasizes the pulsing, textured bass that used to be one of the biggest highlights of this record, which makes the songs lose even more of their edge and the mix to come across as shallow and top-heavy. I'm not a fan of the reverb-heavy, percussion-driven production attempting to make everything heavier and supposedly more meaningful, but this is the exact opposite, and it really does not play to the shift in lyrical focus on this record.

And this is where the lion's share of this discussion is going to take place, because there's a marked shift on this album lyrically towards subject matter that is, for lack of better words, simpler. Like most pop records, High Noon is aiming for big and broad, powerful emotions driven forward by stark moments of clarity and less of the dusty, complicated nuance that characterized their previous works. Now let me stress something: in theory, I don't have an issue with this. Andrew W.K. has proven time and time again that going broad doesn't have to mean your music sucks, and the Arkells' naturally earnest delivery would be a solid fit for that, along with their focus on melody and a penchant for dramatic and huge sounds. 

But here's where we move into tricky territory - because Max Kerman has gone on record saying this record was more political, and here's where we step up to my hard-and-fast rule about political art: the best of it is well-framed, has nuance, and has populism. In other words, the artist knows what the hell they're talking about, places it in the right context, and is standing with the people. But even simply 'good' political records can get by picking two. You want to lecture the people instead of standing with them? Know what the hell you're talking about and make sure your tone works. You want to go broad to make a point? You need to place yourself with the people and be careful what you say.

And really... the Arkells don't really execute here. By going broad, songs like 'Fake Money' can work but it needs more detail and context and poetry to be something beyond just a screed against the upper class I've heard a thousand times - 'Systematic's voice from inside is a fair bit more effective. 'Cynical Bastards' is a call to the people who live in their hometown of Hamilton to look up and break out of pessimism, and there are details in the verses that reflect some righteous populism, but the chorus is a lecture trying to call them out and be better and the tone doesn't quite work. The song that really raised my eyebrows, though, was 'What Are You Holding Onto', a song calling out someone for being self-obsessed and making reckless decisions and saying 'Only God can judge me' - and look, I don't like that phrase either, but you open a pretty big floodgate with songs like this that are almost daring the listener to judge Kerman's lyrics in return - because with this album, who is he to judge someone in return?

And that's the thing: if this album was solely political statements and that sort of rhetoric that displayed more nuance, it could have worked. But that's not the case: the other half of this record is much more straightforward love and relationship jams, most of which are nowhere near the Arkells' best. The thing is, when the Arkells wrote relationship songs in the past, they were complicated emotionally and lyrically, and High Noon goes more for simpler pictures. Which could work, if the songwriting wasn't occasionally quite clumsy, as Kerman tries to dumb it down but his densely worded style of writing doesn't lend itself to these types of tracks. Now granted, Arkells do land a few more hits here: 'Leather Jacket' kind of works from the perspective of the friend who constantly bails out a trainwreck, but all we see of the picture is her, and we start wondering why this guy keeps picking her up by the pay phone - because really, there's no good reason. The one song I really did love was 'Crawling Through The Window', a song showing how two guys get over a break-up together and find friendship and it's got a certain raw, detailed charm that really works wonders for it - it feels real and grounded, and not the broadly sketched stories that the Arkells attempt to tell. The contrast is jarring.

So in the end... look, I don't dislike this album, but I want to like it more. It's more consistent than Strange Desire by Bleachers, but it doesn't have that record's tremendous highs or the sheer populist swell of The Black Market by Rise Against. It's also a sign that while pop music suits the Arkells fine, they could probably do more and be more memorable if they stuck with rock and production that supports it. So in the end, I'm giving it a 6/10 and a tentative recommendation. It's not a bad record, but the Arkells have written better songs, and where High Noon goes for the clarion moments of great reckoning, it doesn't quite show all the light.

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