Thursday, September 18, 2014

album review: 'the union' by the glorious sons

So let's return to the Canadian music scene for a bit. Now as I've mentioned in the past, I now live in Toronto which is one of the major hubs of indie rock in Canada, mostly thanks to a thriving alternative community and multiple universities near the downtown core. And what's even better is that said indie rock scene and those who get invested in it tend to have a fairly tight-knit community, to the point where if you know the right people, buzz tends to circulate pretty quickly. It also means that buzz tends to die fairly quickly if the word doesn't get out, which can be the death knell of indie acts.

So when I start getting requests for Canadian bands not just from you guys, but from friends who are actively involved in the indie music community, it means one of two things: it means that buzz has reached some form of critical mass and we're looking at a possible radio or even mainstream breakthrough; or I've got something really special on my hands. And when requests starting coming in for the debut album of The Glorious Sons, after a very well-received EP Shapeless Art last year that was described as blending the sounds of 90s hook-driven alt rock and pub-friendly indie rock, it definitely caught my interest. So I made sure to pick up their debut album The Union when it dropped and gave it plenty of listens: how is it?

Well, it wasn't what I was expecting, that's for sure. With The Union, the Glorious Sons have done something really quite fascinating: a record that distinctly feels out of time, a 70s or 90s roots-rock inspired record that owes debts to the Tragically Hip and Springsteen in bringing a hard-edged blue collar flavour. And yet with the production and especially with the self-aware lyrics, it's an album that still feels defiantly modern, with many of the album's themes exploring that disconnect between the music they're making and the time when they're making it. And while I won't say this album is great or works all the way through - it gets close, but not all the way - I will say it's a damn interesting listen, especially if you're the sort of guy who has been looking for a 'man's' rock album of the year and mainstream country and rock have not delivered.

And as ridiculous as it sounds for me to be saying that sort of thing in 2014, that's really the feel I get when listening to this album, an album lyrically and instrumentally drenched in blue-collar, rough-edged Americana that seems firmly lodged in masculine spirits that used to define country and rock in the 70s and 90s. Or to put it another way, there's a fight song on this album in with the lead-off single 'Heavy', a bruiser of a song stained with beer and heavy riffs with lead singer Brett Emmons bringing a gritty, grunge-inspired howl for his vocals. And when this album sticks to that heavy, grimy formula, it can make some pretty damn impressive tracks. 'Heavy' was an early standout, but 'The Contender' also stands up pretty damn well, calling back to the classic film On The Waterfront that was later referenced in Raging Bull and hammering the boxing motif pretty effectively. And there are plenty of moments on this album that let some of that textured heaviness come through: the creaking heft of 'Man Made Man', the washed-out keyboards providing a great contrast to the guitar melodies on 'Lightning', the heavy strums on 'Gordie', and even the ragged strings against the great piano melody on 'Amigo'. If I would have a few issues with the production, it'd come in the bass and drum placement - while I definitely appreciate the heavy melodic focus in the guitars, the bass could have afforded a little more texture and came across as a little leaden on 'Mama', one of two carry-overs from their debut EP Shapeless Art. But while the bass could have used more presence and texture, the drums could have used a little less volume, particularly the cymbals and snare drums which came across as very dominant in the mid-range on a few tracks. Minor issue, I know, but it contributed to the cleanness of the sound that took away from the rough texture that I did like on this record.

This takes us to the vocals - and let me stress that I like Emmons' vocals, ragged enough to evoke images of grunge but clean enough to match the production fairly well, but I can't exactly say the same for the backing vocals. Don't get me wrong, I don't usually mind the male chorus - it fits the grimy pub vibe that fits the Glorious Sons' sound so well - but I'm not as much of a fan of the lighter backing vocals that came through on tracks like 'Man Made Man'. Don't get me wrong, I get why they were included, given the band's influences and the band's feel of being from a different time and yet simultaneously modern, but they were just another element that took away from that rugged feel that was such a great fit for the band. 

So let's talk about that concept I found so interesting, which takes us to lyrics and themes. What's immediately apparent is that there's definitely a songwriting upgrade that took place between Shapeless Art and The Union, mostly in terms of lyrical nuance and sketching a more complete picture. And that picture is that of a ragged, macho group toughing through hard times and trying to maintain that spark of life in their eyes in a changing world. And what I really like about this album is that they don't hesitate to draw attention to how their icons have changed, like on the track 'Gordie' that references both Clint Eastwood and Guns 'N Roses to say nothing of the Tragically Hip, and their own personal struggle, which is well-framed enough to show real struggle and insecurity. 'Hard Times', for instance, has a spoken word monologue at the back half of the track that shows some real fear in stepping away into something new - which honestly is a very real sentiment even when it could be measurably better. The album closer 'Amigo' touches on this as well, that shapeless frustration that comes from being stuck when in a simpler time, that sort of insecurity would never have been an issue. The reality is that life is more complicated now, and while there is longing for simpler times with more defined roles, you can tell the Glorious Sons know there are still things to strive for, and on the album standout 'Lightning', they hammer down on that point to great effect.

But here's the odd thing: in being an album between past and present, it creates the odd issue where songs emulating that past without that same nuance can be hit-and-miss. Sure, 'Heavy' and 'The Contender' are solid enough, but the title track features the chorus 'I never joined the union 'cause I never wanted it easy'. And sure, I definitely get the sentiment - it ties back to that masculine individualism of the album's influences, the road warrior ideals that spark the Clint Eastwood references - but at the same time, the bridge features a lyric about how his girlfriend's father doesn't like him because he's a dirty rock 'n roller. And while I know this album is self-aware enough to realize exactly why the father doesn't like him, the framing of the song with the singalong chorus does more to glorify that old rock 'n' roller than it really should, given the rest of the album. Similarly, we have 'Lover Under Fire', which is basically a track where the narrator tells his girlfriend to stop pestering him and trust him because he does love her - so much so that he'll be there when she's on her deathbed and will set her corpse on fire when she dies. Strikes me as a bit melodramatic, just like the lyric on 'Mama' 'And I've never met a women I've loved that I don't loathe'. And sure, I get the old-fashioned blues sentiment that informs the song, but I do wish some of the lyrical nuance that informed other parts of the album had carried over here. But that's the risk you run when trying to emulate the past even with self-awareness: it's hard to have nuance and still maintain the visceral emotional punch that comes with having that straightforward edge. That's why the best moments of this album are informed by both.

In other words, I do like The Union by The Glorious Sons - it calls back to an era of rock and does it well enough to create some catchy melodies and some solid, self-aware nuance to boot. I still do think it's a little too clean and polished, and maintaining that balance between past and present can lead to a few slip-ups, but overall the record has a lot of punch and gets a 7/10 from me. If you're looking for some guitar-driven rock with a hint of a roots or alternative edge that has an old-fashioned flavour but is smart enough to keep it grounded in modern times, definitely give The Union by The Glorious Sons a look. You won't regret it.

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