Immaculate Machine might still be a way from being mentioned alongside such beloved Canadian indie successes like Broken Social Scene and the New Pornographers, but the likable, hard-working Victoria, British Columbia band took a significant step two years ago, their third album Immaculate Machine’s Fables winning over skeptics with its rather unique take on West Coast indie pop. Slickly produced, cleverly arranged, showcasing the girl-boy interplay of co-lead vocalists Kathryn Calder and Brooke Gallupe, and featuring some high-profile cameo appearances (including Owen Pallet and Alex Kapranos), Fables was a very pleasant surprise, the young band showing tremendous improvements over their 2005 Mint Records debut Ones and Zeros. With Calder proving to be a welcome addition to the New Pornographers line-up alongside her uncle Carl Newman, that in turn was a fortuitous break for Immaculate Machine, landing them a spot opening for the supergroup on several tours, exposing the band to an even larger audience.
After all that, one would assume that their follow-up would be an even bigger stab at a real commercial breakthrough, but as it turns out, that’s not the case at all. As if defensively reassessing their situation after getting a fleeting glimpse of success, Immaculate Machine has backtracked a bit, opting not to serve up another lavish, polished platter and instead take a more relaxed, almost lackadaisical approach to their third album. While such a musical direction will catch many by surprise, in the end High on Jackson Hill turns out to be a fun and rather eclectic collection of songs that slowly convinces listeners that the change of pace was a smart decision.
Everything about this album is relaxed and comfortable. In direct contrast to the superbly crafted Fables, which was produced by Dave Carswell and John Collins (The New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara), the new album was recorded entirely in Gallupe’s childhood home in Victoria, with Colin Stewart, who is no stranger to that blend of rock and rustic having worked with Black Mountain, handling the production. Seemingly liberated by the familiarity of their surroundings and the confidence to broaden their sound, there’s a lot of simplicity to the arrangements, yet at the same time a fair bit of experimentation as well. While the last album was loaded with lovable indie pop gems like “Jarhand” and “Come on Sea Legs”, the approach on High on Jackson Hill is much subtler and eclectic, starting right off the bat with the odd “Don’t Build the Bridge”, a herky-jerky little rocker that feels like a collaboration between the White Stripes and the 5th Dimension, the fluid, almost sloppy fills by drummer Luke Kozlowski recorded with no reverb, which in turn greatly enhances the album’s cozy feel.
Interestingly, despite the fact that having the sweet-voiced Calder at their disposal is a tremendous asset for the band, her vocal contributions are in fact very minimal; aside from the pretty acoustic ballad “You Destroyer”, her role is limited only to backing vocals and the odd duet with Gallupe. As a result, it’s up to Gallupe, the band’s main songwriter, to step up and carry the bulk of the record, and he does so in admirable fashion. Possessing a voice that can sound as manic as Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays, as flamboyant as the Killers’ Brendan Flowers, and as unassuming as the aforementioned Carl Newman, his surprising versatility lends itself very well to the various arrangements. With its fuzzed out guitar riffs and falsetto backing vocals, “He’s a Biter” is a coy little homage to T. Rex, “Neighbours Don’t Mind” ebulliently plunders the back catalog of Canadian punk legends Teenage Head, while the cute little Farfisa organ riff on the whimsical “Only Love You For Your Car” benefits hugely from the casual atmosphere of the record.
“Primary Colours” turns out to be the album’s one big lavish track, its sing-along chorus echoing the Arcade Fire a little too closely, but it’s merely a brief diversion from the loose pace of the rest of the record, as tracks like the simple, Velvet Underground-ish “Thank Me Later” and the communal “Sound the Alarms” eventually win us over more. It might seem like a weird time for an up-and-comer like Immaculate Machine to put out what’s essentially a “transition album” this early in their career, but as High on Jackson Hill proves, not only is this band capable of pulling off any style they want to try, but they do so with good taste and undeniable charm.