[7 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It was 10 years ago that this Canadian and my friend Wes Smiderle, who was then the nightlife columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, trekked through the snow one cold winter’s night in our nation’s capital to see a concert by a band called the Recoilers. I won’t bore you with too many details, other than to say that we saw the gig at Barrymore’s Music Hall, which is one of the biggest venues in Ottawa for live music. (Well, before it seemed to devolve to playing canned music at ‘80s and ‘90s music themed nights.) To be a local band playing the venue was a fairly big deal at the time, since it fits a few hundred people shy of a thousand.
I don’t know how many people were there that night, but the balcony in the upper level in which Wes and I parked ourselves seemed particularly crowded. Another thing worth remembering was that the band, which featured Rolf Klausener on bass (a name which will bear some greater importance in a moment), was spot on that night and played an energetic set. They did a song called “Change the Record” which, having only heard it that one time, got caught effortlessly in Wes and I’s collective heads. With its infectious, repetitive chord progressions and verses, the song appeared to be born out of another Canadian band, Sloan. (Looking back, “Change the Record” now seems like a rewrite of “Money City Maniacs” in its anthemic ambition.) Not only was I so impressed with that one song that I wound up buying the band’s EP, For Decoration Only, at the merch table, but the two of us, trudging through back to our respective downtown apartments in the thick snow, came up with a term to describe the power of the song: Sonic Ebola. Needless to say, the term hasn’t exactly caught on with the masses, but it was a catch-all term we came up with to describe a song that you only need to hear once for it to have an almost viral effect on your psyche.
At this juncture, you’re probably wondering what the Recoilers have to do with another Ottawa band that is slowly building a great deal of international attention: the Acorn. Well, Rolf Klausener is the primary architect behind the latter band in the wake of the Recoilers. It almost seems unfair to single out “Change the Record” as a song that briefly changed my life for the purposes of this review, considering that Klausener didn’t write the track. His contributions to the Recoilers were much more spacious and airy. While his writing partner Jacob Bryce wanted the band to clearly be another Canadian poppy indie rock band, Klausener brought to the table a more subdued, slow-paced, and refined angle, as though he were a member of another group. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible that Klausener’s two songs on For Decoration Only are the stronger of the EP’s six cuts because they sound so removed from the power-pop ambitions of that the Recoilers were shooting for under Bryce’s direction. So it’s perhaps apt that Klausener is now, indeed, at the rudder of another band that is better able to bear the fruit of his sonic ambition.
No Ghost is the Acorn’s third album, coming after 2004’s The Pink Ghosts and 2007’s Glory Hope Mountain, the latter being a song cycle about Klausener’s Honduras-born mother’s upbringing and resettlement into Canada. No Ghost is seemingly a less unified, more scatter-shot affair, with songs about love laboured over as a primary thematic concern. It is also a cheerier, more upbeat record, which, in at least one interview, Klausener has said owes to the fact that the Acorn went through some personnel changes since Glory Hope Mountain.
The Acorn sits fairly squarely on the folk rock fence, as No Ghost is evocative of crows sitting on a telephone line, wooden rain barrels full of coppery water, dust kicked up on country back-roads, and the rusty barbed-wire fences lining those roads. The song “Bobcat Goldwraith” even starts and ends with the sounds of crickets chirping. This is clearly the sound of Americana, except for the fact that the Acorn is a Canadian band.
There are a few deviations from the formula on No Ghost, however. The song “Crossed Wires” starts out with a wildly propulsive beat and interweaving, jittery guitar and bass lines that owe more to post-punk than the folksy, country-ish vibe that much of the album shoots for. “Bobcat Goldwraith” stutters along with a mid-section that has warm keyboards and a horn section buried in the background to almost mariachi effect. The title track churns and bubbles with a crunchy, rocking guitar riff as well.
The band is apt to gain comparisons to the Arcade Fire, or even perhaps Bon Iver, in that No Ghost was recorded largely in isolation in a cabin in rural Quebec. However, the Acorn don’t erupt with the same kind of sonic fanfare that the Arcade Fire are wont to do with their songs, and the Acorn are hardly as laid back and effortless as Bon Iver. If anything, the band seems to inhabit a middle ground between the two, and mostly invite comparisons to the songs of Sam Roberts at least in terms of tone (think along the lines of “Brother Down”) and the fact that Klausener’s voice bares a passing resemblance to the Montreal singer-songwriter, particularly on “Bobcat Goldwraith”.
The 11 songs here offer very little in the way of Sonic Ebola, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. No Ghost is a lazy-sounding record, and it would be the perfect soundtrack for lying on a dock at the cottage on a summer’s evening. It’s probably a good thing that the band has spent the effort on its sound, because, the lyrics don’t bear much scrutiny. (Something you might have guessed from the fact that there’s a song titled “Bobcat Goldwraith”, and one titled the Bon Jovi-esque “Slippery When Wet”.) While Klausener has a great opening line on the quiet and luscious “Misplaced”—“You’re the late night tussle / You’re the rumble in my room”—there are moments on No Ghost where it seems like the songwriter was just stringing a few lines together. This is most notable on “Slippery When Wet”, which opens with the stream-of-consciousness “Panda, Panda climb your tree / There’s a life you live in spite of me / And for all the fruit that bore your scene / There’s a wet worm lying by your feet / By your feet, by your feet / There’s another apple you don’t eat”. Elsewhere, on “Restoration”, there’s the opening shot: “Concentric circles signal dinnertime / The tidal waves that skim the surface”. Somewhere, James Joyce would be proud.
Another slight knock against No Ghost is that even by the reasonable LP length of almost 37 minutes, it feels too short. It spends a lot of time building up its mood, and then it’s over. Still, No Ghost is a solid effort, one that should, ideally, open the Acorn to a wider fan base. It has a certain charm to it that is endearing, the mark of an album that is solidly constructed. One thing that No Ghost did was have me digging back through my CD collection to dust off my copy of For Decoration Only, which I hadn’t listened to in years. No Ghost, for me, ultimately had the effect of calling to mind the past, even as it moved forward in painting a sound that has less to do with getting stuck in your head, and more about lingering in quiet moments as it gradually unspools itself. With No Ghost, there is no need to change the record. In fact, despite its lyrical deficiencies, you’ll probably want to play it again once the final cut is done.