Eastern Buzz, West Coast Cool
For those who heard Boompa Records’ inaugural label compilation, Volume One, a year ago, one song by an unknown band named the Ladies and Gentlemen stood out above the rest—a tune with the same kind of gentle, West Coast vibe of Grandaddy’s Sumday, sans the strong stoner influence. Carried by a simple, repeated synth hook and a steady backbeat, “Stay” was a subtle blend of electro and indie pop, building up to the gentlest of mellifluous pop explosions during the lilting chorus. Dreamy, bittersweet (“You can stay if you want to / But you can’t stay in my bed”), and incessantly catchy, it was the high point of an all-around very impressive compilation. Nearly a year later, Boompa is set to release the Ladies and Gentlemen’s debut full-length, Small Sins, a record which is easily one of the best Canadian indie rock albums so far this year.
With the abundance of loosely-assembled Canadian indie “collectives”, such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, and the Arcade Fire, the name “The Ladies and Gentlemen” conjures images of another dozen or so starving Canadian artists determined to become the next buzz band from north of the border. In actuality, the Ladies and Gentlemen consist of only one person. An ironically titled pet project by Toronto musician Thomas D’Arcy, Small Sins was recorded in the basement of his home this past winter. After a mildly successful run as the bassist and lead vocalist for local power pop faves the Carnations, D’Arcy decided to hunker down and write and record some songs purely for his own benefit, and before long, Vancouver, British Columbia, label Boompa (home to Vancouver indie pop stalwarts the Salteens and the brilliantly eclectic Run Chico Run, among others) agreed to release it this summer.
Performing the guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards himself, D’Arcy brought in as many instruments as he could manage, including a large collection of keyboards, from Farfisa organ to Rhodes piano to Moog synths, but despite the variety of sounds, this is one solo project that doesn’t sink into the kind of suffocating quagmire of self-indulgence we hear all too often. Instead, Small Sins is a startlingly simple, warm-sounding piece of work. Electronic influences abound, as electro touches accent the compositions (bringing to mind the work of the Postal Service), but instead of creating a cold, sterile sonic landscape, the final product is surprisingly rich in tone. It all sounds so unassuming and humble, it could only come from Canada.
D’Arcy’s comfortable coupling of synthetic music and organic tones becomes instantly apparent on the opening track, “Won’t Make It Easier”, as three separate synth lines mesh neatly with a typical bass/drums rhythm section and D’Arcy’s breezy vocal melody. “Small Sins/Big Within” features somber organ chords offset by a thrumming bass line and gentle drum overdubs, while “At Least You Feel Something” begins as a straightforward solo acoustic guitar performance, only to slowly segue into a majestic climax of layered synths that brings to mind the wispy, spaced-out beauty of Air. In direct contrast is the upbeat “It’s Easy”, the most rock-oriented track on the album, which also happens to be the most minimally arranged track, a simple guitar riff being the primary focus.
While the overall tone of Small Sins is intimate and inviting, there’s a quiet desperation to D’Arcy’s lyrics, as if he’s trying to keep a brave face while inwardly dealing with personal torment. With titles such as “We Won’t Last the Winter”, “Too Much to Lose”, and “Threw it All Away”, the lyrical content can get especially downbeat. “She’s the Source” is one of the disc’s most instantly memorable songs, buoyed by a seemingly ebullient chorus, but when D’Arcy intones, “That little junkie girl / You’re playing into her hands you know”, the song starts down a path we couldn’t have expected, as the protagonist desperately tries to convince his friend to get rid of his drug-addicted girlfriend before his friend destroys himself, and all the while, the song’s bubbly chorus brings a sense of compassion to the song. To cap things off, the album closes not with a sense of hope, but on a note of self-doubt with the lovely, tender “Is She the One?”, D’Arcy tossing in a subtle country feel to the ambient accompaniment.
As confident as the album is, it all comes back to “Stay”, which remains the clear-cut standout, D’Arcy’s ingenious combination of sweet melodies and wry lyrics making for a very beguiling tune. “And when the right time comes, I’ll be what you’ve grown to hate”, he sings, “Like your high school crush made you pass your papers in late”.
Now officially a five-piece band, the Ladies and Gentlemen are starting to generate some serious buzz both north and south of the Canada/US border, having recently played a well-received showcase at Austin’s South by Southwest conference. Small Sins might not be on a label as trendy as Toronto’s Arts & Crafts or Paper Bag, but this charmer of an album from a small West Coast label deserves the kind of attention their Eastern counterparts receive, and the fact that Thomas D’Arcy doesn’t play post-punk, nor does he have 12 people in his band, only adds to the appeal.
Small Sins will be released in mid-September, and can be pre-ordered at www.boompa.ca, and in a Canadian scene recently flush with vigor and vitality, the Ladies and Gentlemen remain a real find.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.