The small city of Kingston, Canada – located in eastern Ontario about where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River – is a town of contradictions. It is home to one of Canada’s most respected academic institutions (Queen’s University), but it is also home to what is arguably Canada’s most notorious maximum security correctional facility (Kingston Penitentiary, which the federal government is now shutting down). On the streets of Kingston, you get undergraduates uneasily sharing sidewalk space with the ex-convicts who stay in the city once they’re sprung from the Pen. So Kingston is a bit of a “La Villa Strangiato”, to borrow a term from Rush. However, Kingston is also debatably Canada’s biggest small city hotbed of rock music, directly and indirectly.
On the indirect front, when the late Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky decided to open an eatery in 1979, the world renowned Chez Piggy, he did so in Kingston. Directly, Kingston was also home for a time to the Inbreds, a great drum and bass two piece that was the toast of Canada’s indie rock community throughout most of the 1990s. Oh, and a little band called the Tragically Hip has roots in Kingston. While somewhat unknown outside of the northern 49th parallel, the Hip, within its country’s borders, is considered to be Canada’s official band – something as universally loved as hockey. (To dislike the Hip in Canada is akin to dissing the influence of the Church, at least when the Church had much more influence than it does today.) Recently, the Hip got part of an existing downtown street named after them in Kingston, which gives you a sense of just how influential the band is within its own city and national borders. So there’s been a lot of stuff that has gone down in the burg. It’s a pretty musical city.
Well, there’s a new-ish band from Kingston that has been gaining international acclaim in recent years, PS I Love You. A two-piece band in the tradition of the Inbreds, the group is made up of Paul Saulnier on vocals/guitar/bass pedals and Benjamin Nelson on drums. The duo released a highly acclaimed debut album in 2010 called Meet Me at the Muster Station, which not only our friends at P4K extolled the virtues of (to the effect of an 8.1 rating) but Canada’s Exclaim! national music magazine put it in their Top Five albums of the year. The album was also longlisted for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize. So, with their sophomore album, Death Dreams, you would expect the group would be facing enormous pressure to live up to the bar set by the debut.
Well, I’m overjoyed to report that Death Dreams is not a stumble, as it, in fact, raises the bar even higher for this group, surpassing Muster Station in every way, shape and form. With longer songs, a darker theme, and catchier melodies, Death Dreams is a second album that doesn’t fall prey to the sophomore slump—it builds on past successes and expands the group’s ambitions. While Muster Station is described as an insular album about their home town, Death Dreams sees the group expanding their vision beyond their small city, with the exception of the song “Princess Towers”, so named after an apartment complex in downtown Kingston. Two of the album’s songs are about other Canadian cities: “Toronto” and “Saskatoon”, obviously inspired by and a product of the band’s touring schedule in recent years. Granted, singing about Canada can be the Kiss of Death for international commercial ambitions—much in the same way that the Jam never really caught on in America in a big way for all of their British-isms—it’s great to see the group following in the footsteps of the Tragically Hip and being unafraid, in Spirit of the West’s terms, of being “Far Too Canadian”.
Ultimately, what makes Death Dreams an awe-inspiring addition to the band’s repertoire is that it is a record that is a bit of a “grower”: it takes about three listens to get into the record’s knottiness and density of punishing sound that ups the ante over Muster Station. But once you get into it, the disc is completely addictive—one that you simply can’t stop playing on repeat. It is harder to penetrate initially, though, as the album was inspired by Saulnier’s nightmares on tour of death (which is why the album is so named), and things are certainly thematically starker here than the previous album. Even the opening title track, a two-and-a-half minute instrumental, is bleak and uninviting at first, full of harshly strummed and distorted guitar chords and notes over cymbal washes. However, it does set up the themes of the record beautifully, and works as a lead-in to the brilliant “Sentimental Dishes” by building up one’s expectations for the second track. And once “Sentimental Dishes” drops with the clicking of the beat on drumsticks, the song erupts into the band’s most anthemic statement to date: a melodically catchy song with hooky hooks that will raise fists into the air with its touches of ‘80s metal flashery in the solo guitar workout section. It may boast a silly line as a choral lyric—“I don’t want to do these dishes / We don’t want to do these dishes / They don’t want to do these dishes”—but the guitars are pushed so far into the red that the needle on the volume unit meter breaks, practically obscuring the vocals. A punishing, distorted track, recalling the themes of Hüsker Dü’s mighty “I Apologzie”, “Sentimental Dishes” might just be the best thing PS I Love You has ever captured to tape.
However, the rest of the album is no slouch, combining the best elements of British jangle pop with shoegazer melodies. In fact, if there was a genre that Death Dreams represents, its nightmare pop (as opposed to the shoegazery dream pop). “Don’t Go” features a very Johnny Marr guitar line mirrored against Saulnier’s caterwauling vocals, as though he was gripped with a crippling bout of psychosis during the recording: “I’m free but I’m not free” he wails throughout a latter section of the tune, grappling with an almost paranoid feeling. The short, punchy “Toronto”, which follows, further obscures the rambling, careening vocals, under über-crunchy guitars fed through effects pedals, and is like listening to a man trying to escape from a particularly tight straitjacket. “Future Dontcare” marries the Cure with the shimmery guitar histrionics of My Bloody Valentine, with a feeling of psychic sickness permeating the proceedings, with Saulnier bemoaning that “All I ever wanted / Is more than I ever had.”
The jangly “How Do You” is another stellar addition to the PS I Love You catalogue, catchy and yet corporal with Saulnier’s snaky and slippery singing, buried alive under the guitar lines, and it gives the song a starkly menacing feel. “How do you deal with pain?” is what you can barely make out during the chorus, as though its author is unable to convey such a simple question, so wracked with whatever emotion—guilt? anger?—that he’s dealing with. “Princess Towers” continues on that vein, with vocals so fuzzy that it is almost impossible to discern the theme: something about leaving a party. It is a punitive and memorable song, wracked with bluesy and metal touches. And so I could go on, song by song, but I’ll just jump to the very end: “First Contact” is arguably the most experimental (but not impenetrable or uncommercial) song in the PS I Love You canon by starting out with acoustic guitars recorded on a hissy, lo-fi four-track recorder, but then erupts in to a canonical rock track that you could almost imagine Gord Downie singing to.
All in all, Death Dreams is a record of great power: power themes, power chords, power everything. It takes a while to warm up to, as noted, but once the light bulb clicks on over your head, Death Dreams becomes a brilliant flat-out rock record. While not really a concept album, the album’s loose connections with dread—possibly fuelled by the daunting task of following up such a great record as Muster Station—gives the disc a thematic unity. But, more than that, there’s some great songwriting on this disc. If Muster Station was about getting to Point B from Point A, the joy and majesty of Death Dreams is watching the band traverse the peaks and valleys of their sound. While one can certainly debate the merits of the bleak title track (and its instrumental sequel, “Death Dreams II”, which is sort of the record’s centrepiece), not one note feels misplaced. Honest, refreshing, and seething with uncomfortable emotion, Death Dreams is simply a masterwork by a rising Canadian band, and had it not been for a little album called David Comes to Life, my Polaris money would be riding with this disc.
Death Dreams is simply terrific, and offers a sound that belies the fact that it was made by just two people. If PS I Love You can continue making albums this compulsory, I have no fear that, perhaps in 20 years time, the councillors at Kingston’s City Hall will have to follow the Hip’s lead and offer them a street, even if it’s just a laneway, named after them, too. Added up, Death Dreams is another stellar album from another stellar band that has come out of one of Canada’s most fertile music scenes—an essential and raw purchase for rock lovers everywhere.