Since its emergence as a cultural phenomenon and its eventual establishment as a lasting force to be reckoned with, both artistically and commercially, rock and roll has served to meet many different needs for many different kinds of people. To some, rock music is a symbol of or catalyst for rebellion; to others it perfectly expresses the desire for love, understanding and/or freedom. Some have found inspiration for great social change in its words and rhythms while countless others have simply found rock and roll a great way to piss off their parents. In the discussion of the many characteristics and functions contained under such a vast and unique umbrella, one fundamental purpose of rock can often go overlooked: the ability of such music to bring beauty into the world.
Beauty can come in a wide array of forms and through a variety of models; there is as much beauty inherently present in an Eric Clapton guitar solo or Otis Redding vocal as there is in a highly decorated or ornately arranged piece of music. However, certain bands throughout rock history have employed rich instrumental assembly and episodes of sweeping momentum to bring a more obviously manifest sense of splendor. Pink Floyd was one of the more popular pioneers of this concept and current artists like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky and, to some extent, Radiohead can be seen as carriers of such a torch. While these artists may purpose their music to represent other ideals or give suburban kids an outlet for revolt, they also realize the notion of bringing verdant, fertile tones to life.
Following in step is Canadian sextet A Northern Chorus whose fourth LP, The Millions Too Many features many hallmarks of the band’s sound: lush instrumental passages, dynamic ebb and flow and abundant orchestrations. The album makes magnificent use of cello, violin, trumpet, trombone, mellophone, organ and piano, surrounding vocalists/guitarists Stuart Livingstone and Pete Hall as well as the band’s rhythm section with these instruments’ warm and inviting tones. Especially prominent are the stringed instruments as two members of the band’s full-time lineup, cellist Alex McMaster and violinist Erin Aurich play a vital role in the band’s direction.
On opening track “Carpenter”, A Northern Chorus serves notice as to what can be expected from the nine songs which fill the album. The track begins in a soft and foreboding manner with the presence of deep percussive sounds and vocals exposed in a way that the album’s remainder will prove a rarity. Yet, just 45 seconds or so in, the group lifts a curtain revealing a rich forest of shimmering sounds and colors which carry the song away and set the stage for the album’s greatest glories which come early in the tracklisting. Track two, “Skeleton Keys” is far and away the album’s best offering, opening with an immediate yet understated rhythmic pulse which propels and supports the track’s delicate vocals. At one point, the song almost comes to a dead stop before gradually building again into a full and beautiful burst of sound. Other highlights that dot the landscape of the album’s first half include the title track and “The Canadian Shield”, a song which hints at the band’s purpose in lyrics like “…basking in the half-light, we’ll try to conjure a peace that remains concealed” and “Splintered into majesty and torn into awe / Awakened by the timelessness of it all.”
When at their best, A Northern Chorus displays a wonderful and rare ability to fill each song with a great number of wonderful and gorgeous sounds, packing more in than many bands do, yet without causing the track to overflow or be drug down by the weight of attempting too much. On The Millions Too Many , the band is able to deliver these sounds in a more succinct fashion than in their past. Only two of the album’s nine tracks top five minutes in length where, by comparison, their previous effort, 2005’s Bitter Hands Resign saw only two of its eight tracks come in under five minutes. Longtime fans of the group might be concerned by the relative brevity embraced on this project (a worry the band has addressed and tried to assuage in the album’s press material) but any potential fears prove unfounded by album’s end.
Keeping the glow of the album’s positives in mind, there are moments of weakness present. The second part of the album, with the exception of closing track “Victory Parade”, does not quite match the vibrancy of the first. Moreover, when a band is able to achieve such brilliance in one aspect of their work, other areas can suffer by comparison. In the case of A Northern Chorus, these areas include melodic consistency and the strength of their lyrics. Both of these aspects fail to be as reliably remarkable as the band’s arrangements, hitting at times and missing at others. Several songs’ melodies are average at best and though full of interesting imagery, the motivation behind certain lyrics seem obscured. Fortunately, though, these qualities are not laid bare or left to exposure by the song’s arrangements and when working in conjunction with guitars, strings, brass, etc., melody and lyric seem like just another pair of instruments contributing to the greater harmony being strived for.
Despite these few uneven points, The Millions Too Many is a fresh and intriguing piece of music, adding depth and variety to the living, breathing, ever changing organism that is rock and roll. Should the band grow as consistent in every area of their work as they are in regards to instrumentation and musical flow, their potential for success would be astounding.
// Notes from the Road
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