[22 June 2007]
Have you ever been to Saskatchewan? I’m guessing you probably haven’t, and neither have I; from what I understand, there’s not much too see. It’s very flat and there’s a lot of wheat. There’s so little there, in fact, that at night you can see the light of an approaching train from miles away. Occasionally, a lonely grain silo rises from the plains or, rarer still, the concrete and glass of a small city. And even these urban oases, like Saskatoon, don’t exactly have the same character as most major metropolises. Saskatoon might be a beautiful, picturesque community, but it doesn’t have San Francisco’s climate or Montreal’s European sophistication or New York City’s seedy underbelly. In short, there’s nothing there that you would usually associate with the production of great pop music. Rootsy folk and country maybe, but Saskatoon is just about the last place you’d expect to find excellent, upbeat indie-pop.
Apparently, no one has ever mentioned this to Saskatoon’s Colin Skrapek. Skrapek is the mastermind behind Maybe Smith, whose fourth full-length album sounds nothing like what you think of when you think of the Canadian prairies. Instead of being a record of gentle acoustic or steel guitars, Animals & Architects is an album built on a foundation of distorted piano loops, catchy melodies and electronic squiggles. Skrapek’s music has much more in common with the big city sample-based Russian Futurists than it does with the handful of famed Saskatchewanian (Saskatchewonian? Saskatchwanese?) singer-songwriters, like, say, Joni Mitchell.
And he doesn’t waste any time in making it known. The record kicks off with “Open War” which, along with “Paper Bag”, is one of the stand-out tracks on the album. It opens in typical Maybe Smith fashion, with one of the aforementioned distorted pianos, a tambourine and some electronic noodling. With a rollicking drumbeat, thumping bass, and more guitar joining them a moment later, the song is pretty much set. All that’s left is a killer melody and Skrapek’s frequently entertaining lyrics. (“You gave head to your priest”, he sings to lead off the third verse. “Even though you don’t eat meat / What a special treat / A really special treat.”)
The rest of the songs on the album pretty much follow that basic blueprint. They are all drowned in a fuzzy layer of distortion, most are built around the same basic looping structure, and most share the same instrumentation and vocal arrangement—Skrapek’s lead supported by a few backing vocals offering la’s or ba’s or ooh’s in each ear. And that leads to the only small complaint about the album; with many of the songs sounding so much alike and based on the same formula, they do tend to blend together on the first few listens. It’s not that the formula doesn’t work—it does—but by the time you’ve heard a handful of songs, you know what to expect from the rest. There are very few surprises the rest of the way. At times, you might find yourself wishing that Skrapek had used a wider variety of sounds, or that the distortion, which does give his songs a great crunchy edge, didn’t also tend to flatten them out into a homogenous mass.
But as I say, it is a small complaint. Animals & Architects is a wonderful record, and Skrapek has definitely come into his own—perfecting the sound that he hadn’t quite nailed down on his fist three LPs. And he’s clearly got a few more tricks up his sleeve. A companion EP, Snowmen & Scientists, will be released as a free download sometime this summer. It’s billed as a compilation of some “re-imagined” songs off Animals & Architects accompanied by few new tracks “all layered over samples from your favourite 1960s girls groups.” If this record is any indication, it should be fantastic. And with music this good coming out of the province, maybe there is a reason to visit Saskatchewan after all.