Toronto’s Pilot Speed opens Wooden Bones with subdued clapping and mild cheering, approximating the background noise at a sparse club or an under-attended party. As a kick-off moment, it’s a self-deprecating reference to the warmer social welcomes that herald Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. It’s the first and only effort at knowing humor that Pilot Speed can be bothered with. The song that follows is “Put the Phone Down”, Wooden Bones‘s lead single as well as its most-appealing feature. A handclap-friendly beat and simple guitar form underscore the impassioned range of classically trained vocalist Todd Clark, who reconstitutes the lyrical mainstays of Bono (“Broken bottles / In the doorway”), Springsteen (“Take the night train / Ride to Jersey”), and Win Butler (“The city is a graveyard”) with aplomb. Still, it’s the album’s least-resistible cut, largely due to the inevitability of its telegraphed chorus.
Pilot Speed was formerly known as Pilate, a name they dropped when both success and legal trouble beckoned from outside of Canada. Their adequate level of fame in their home nation was based on admittedly fine pop singles like “Into Your Hideout” and “Barely Listening”, a sequence which “Put the Phone Down” slides comfortably into. Those enticed to the band’s LPs by these siren songs tended to wreck their hulls upon ghostly rocks of flaccid Brit-rock lite, however. Pilot Speed share the perhaps undesirable title of “Canada’s Coldplay” with Nova Scotians In-Flight Safety but are polished to an impossible sheen and have none of In-Flight Safety’s elegiac-maritime longing. They’re not terrible and are capable of effective tune-smithing but generally come off as a little bit flat.
Wooden Bones is pleasing enough to the ear, but it’s really barely worth talking about. Clark’s got some fine pipes, and his melodies achieve cruising altitude most of the time. The lyrics are full of vague platitudes that might sound profound to someone who hasn’t listened to the radio since 1960. There are mournful pianos and chiming echoed guitar, ethereal strings and shiny keyboards. Bill Keeley’s drum work strikes the occasional spark, but there’s only so much kindling to go around here. There’s plenty of smoke but not nearly enough fire.
Wooden Bones is hardly devoid of diversion. The muted title track cultivates a stark baroque quality before abandoning the mystery for more half-baked anthemizing. “Today I Feel Sure” has some well-produced minimalism to offer, and Chris Greenough’s sinister guitar solo in “Midnight Fires” is much more evocative than the self-righteous proselytizing of the lyric sheet. “Light You Up” has the feel of a possible second hit single, with Clark emoting his way across the grand chorus. “Up On the Bridge” is moody and downbeat and remarkably patient. “Open Arms” is fairly clichéd, but possesses some of the hymnal muscle of “Into the West”, the stand-out closing track from their last release.
But little else makes a very strong impression, even upon multiple listens. As Wooden Bones winds on with too much grandiosity and too little inspiration, the crowd’s unenthusiastic reception at its beginning seems less like a sociable wink and more like a pre-emptive judgment. Pilot Speed does little in the course of this recording to earn anything more than polite applause.