It could be said that this six-piece band from Winnipeg, Manitoba, is better known for being an interpreter of material. That’s because Royal Canoe have performed pieces of Beck’s Song Reader, an “album” released late last year only as sheet music through McSweeney’s, in a live setting. And while the band released a couple of independent EPs in 2012, it may just be that the unveiling of their debut full-length Today We’re Believers is the thing that make them more of a name beyond their penchant for media stunts in terms of landing some serious ink. Listening to this album, one thing becomes apparent: the band are still interpreters. They employ funk beats used by Prince, who also calls the Prairie region home, at least south of the Canadian border. The band also has a little bit of that afrobeat sound popularized by Vampire Weekend. At times, the group sounds like a kitchen sink version of the expansiveness of Broken Social Scene. And, yes, there’s the use of falsetto employed, which may have indie rock diehards reaching for their vial of Bon Iver. So there’s a lot to admire in Today We’re Believers, even though it feels like little pieces that interlock to make for a rubblebucket whole. The record’s one that you’ll equally want to dance to and make love to. An odd polarity to be sure, but there it is.
If one thing could be said about Today We’re Believers it is that it’s a record that definitely employs a slow burn approach. It glides carefully into the water with its opening three songs, then dunks its head completely underneath by the time you get to the fantastic fourth track “Exodus of the Year”, which sounds remotely Stars-like. From there, the record goes through a purple patch of material in its midsection before giving away to the slighter vibes of the last portion of the record. Equally as good as “Exodus of the Year” is its follow-up track “Bathtubs”, a song that sounds like Vampire Weekend channeling ‘70s soul and disco music with its string stabs: it’s also very much in the dance punk vein of a !!!, making it quite marvelous to get down and slink to. Meanwhile, “Button Fumbla” traces the outline of early Prince to the point where you’d be forgiven for it being by the Purple One to begin with—and its funky organ line is probably the sort of thing that you’re going to hear sampled on some future hip-hop hit. “Show Me Your Eyes” has a kind of chicken-scratch bluesy guitar thing going for it, and yet it’s quite funky in its own way.
So Today We’re Believers definitely employs a hybrid sound, especially in its excellent mid-section. And while its scattershot approach might be appealing on the surface, at 12 songs—four of them eclipsing the five-minute mark—the record does feel a bit overlong. It’s funkiness is a little hard to sustain. The end result that some of the stuff to be had here does feel tossed-off, particularly in the record’s latter half. While “Nightcrawlin’” has a suitably Funkadelic vibe going on, its sparse intro leaves you on the seat of your pants waiting for something to really ignite and happen. And some of these songs feel lesser: opening cut “Today We’re Believers” and “Stemming”—the latter of which bleeds into “Light”, easily the album’s one true misstep with its Auto-Tuned vocals and fey piano vamping—feel as part of a large holding pattern, mere padding (hummable padding, granted, to be sure) to fill out the record. And the sound is wholly one that feels “Canadian indie”. This is the type of rock that could easily find its way into the Arts & Crafts roster, as it’s quite “arty”. You know, the sort of thing that you might encounter while scanning CBC Radio, the kind of that’s “good for you” as opposed to being merely good on its own. Which isn’t to say that Today We’re Believers isn’t great, it just sometimes cops to that collective Canadian indie rock sound you hear in BSS and Arcade Fire, among others, rather than trudging down its own glorious dirty path.
Still, Today We’re Believers is an impressive debut, and you can tell a lot about this record in its willingness to take the occasional risk. Not that it entirely succeeds, but that’s the nature of risk-taking—the gamble either pays off in spades, or it slips and falls victim to its own petard. And, yet, the most pleasing aspects of Today We’re Believers is when those vocals are soaring highly and the twin spirit of Purple Rain and For Emma, Forever Ago are invoked. If Prince doesn’t wind up covering “If I Had a House”, the world will feel that much more unjust. “Don’t you think about it,” goes a line in that song, and, as a piece, Today We’re Believers is probably best if you’re not really paying too much attention to the more famous artists that the group is swiping from. Today We’re Believers doesn’t feel wholly original, but, when it’s firing on all cylinders, it is quite good. It’s a record that does invite cherry-picking from the best tracks, despite its ambition to really feel like an album. Despite that, there’s enough engaging stuff and ambition and expansiveness going on that Today We’re Believers might appeal to you, and turn you, indeed, into a believer of the mix of retro and current sounds that this group is often deftly mining.