The Ballad of a So-Called Opening Band
Toronto, Canada’s Ohbijou is a fairly known quantity north of the 49th parallel – at least, so much so that the six-piece can headline small clubs with the likes of Snailhouse and Julie Doiron, both with whom they are on tour this fall. Both of the supporting acts are no slouches in the Canadian indie music scene, either, as any follower could tell you. Add to that, the band has played headlining gigs overseas, so Ohbijou is certainly not in the also-ran category. However, headlining status is not the impression you’d get by listening to their third and latest album, Metal Meets, though that’s not meant to be a slag or a diss. Simply put, Ohbijou is, sonically, the type of band that you’d put on before a big name headliner – they’re pleasant, they’re not showy (meaning, they won’t blow the main act out of the water), and the material has a consistent tone to it. In other words, Ohbijou is the sort of band that, stylistically, you’d be apt to hear and see while jostling for a front-row spot at a general admission show, and could agreeably endure while waiting patiently for the artist you really paid to see to come on board.
What helps build that mental impression of Metal Meets is the fact that Ohbijou sound remarkably like a lot of other Canadian indie bands du jour: they have the same operatic bombast as a Broken Social Scene, the same fragile singer-songwriter cadence of a Feist, the same mellow string section of an Owen Pallett or an Arcade Fire, and the same sort of fractured indie pop sensibilities of a New Pornographers. By having a sound that is suggestive of other sounds wrapped into a nice, neat little package, Ohbijou would seemingly fit the bill of opening band status: they’re good and solid, and their material will just float on by without making much of an impact. Just the kind of thing the bands mentioned a few sentences ago would probably want to put in front of them to keep the anticipation and expectation mounting for their show.
Again, the preceding two paragraphs might seem like a bit of a kiss off of the band, but there are some intriguing elements at work on Metal Meets. First off, the songwriting is remarkably even and complex, with some moments of lovely operatic bombast – which pays off in spades on songs like album opener “Niagara”, which sputters along with fragility, and yet has a converse sense of symphonic tunefulness. The title track shows a move towards shuffling cosmopolitan cum folk-country songsmithery that offers an interesting blend of tangentially related genres. Where the album really shines, however, is smack dab right in the middle: the six-minute “Sligo” meanders along for at least half its length, but then gradually builds up into what becomes a restrained volcanic eruption of stirring emotion. “Anser” simmers into a beautiful swirling crescendo of soaring male and female vocals, before pulling itself back into a limber and quiet piano line. There is a great deal of things to like about Metal Meets, particularly in its mid-section, even if a large part of the record conveys a certain sense of sameness once you get beyond the sixth song or so.
An aspect that marks the band as originators as opposed to blind followers comes with the distinctive vocal phrasing of Casey Mecija, who is essentially in a class all by herself insofar as unique vocalists go. Imagine if Dolly Parton was sped up to sound like a chipmunk, and that would give you a basic blueprint of how individualistic a singer Mecija is. Whether or not you fall for her charms may be a simple matter of taste – some will undoubtedly adore it, and others will probably rather listen to 45 minutes of someone dragging their nails across a chalkboard – but still, there is undeniably an elven, perhaps pixie-ish quality to the way she carries her voice that is unlike anything you’ve really heard before. Her voice does suit the lush, gorgeous melodies well, and adds the effect of placing metaphorical icicles on top of the organic string and keyboard drenched tracks. If you like your music frosty and cold, you’ll appreciate the tools that Mecija brings to the table, adding a layer of frigidity to the proceedings.
However, there is a bit of a sense with Metal Meets that you’ve kinda all heard this before, which will either excite listeners jonesing for new albums from the big players in the Canadian alt rock scene or make you throw up your arms and say “Feh!” at the familiarity of the music at work on the disc. There really isn’t a huge gulf that separates Ohbijou from a band like Broken Social Scene, say, except for the fact that the former makes do in at least a third or fourth of the players that would be required to make a record by the latter. Ohbijou certainly taps into what I’d call a “Toronto sound” that is awfully hard to describe in words, but you know it when you hear it. There’s a certain softness, a gauze to the songwriting, and a sense of using unconventional instruments in a traditional rock idiom that practitioners in that city seem to bring to their music.
Still, despite a whiff of over-familiarity that permeates Metal Meets, it isn’t a bad album, and it is one that you’ll want to listen through from start to finish more than once to really dig deep and parse the emotions and orchestration that are laid bare. It’s just that it isn’t really as superb as it makes itself out to be, either, and there could have been a concision that would have really sharpened a few of these songs, which sometimes stretch out into the five and six minute mark. Even with the majority of songs hovering around four minutes, the album feels a bit long for some intangible reason. It could be argued, too, that some of the tracks are a little on the overproduced side with all sorts of ornamental effects and keyboard lines that sound a touch too busy. Overall, Metal Meets is simply an agreeable record, one that you sometimes can’t really make heads or tails of, but one that you’ll want to play, regardless. Probably as a warm-up right before an album you’re really itching to hear, in the best tradition of a so-called opening band.