On the opening track of his band’s latest album, Canasta frontman Matt Priest resents the idea that “great rock and roll isn’t just something you pick up and play / That great rock and roll should always have something of value to say”. Such is the burden pop songwriters seem forever destined to carry, to be deep, to explore the dark night of the soul, to resonate, and therefore to elevate the rock singer’s position to poet, spokesman, thinker. “I am important!”, Scott Stapp seems to cry from every bead of sweat on his impeccably burnished chest. Priest, on “Microphone Song”, would like nothing better than to take a towel and mop up that pop star-as-messiah nonsense, to put the populist back in pop, to remind us that you don’t have to be crowned by Simon Cowell, Rolling Stone, or your local chapter of rock intelligentsia to matter.
The song laments the de-evolution of writing songs from passion to homework. The paradox is that in doing so, “Microphone Song” does indeed have something to say. It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a bigger spoon, or something. Priest wants someone to remind him “that this should be fun.” Well, from its drum-roll and organ intro to its punchy, climactic choruses, it sure makes me want to shake my hair rather than ponder Kierkegaard. So consider that mission accomplished, though we’ll get back to it later.
Imagine the prize musicians from six adjacent counties’ high school orchestras growing up and coalescing to form a pop band inspired by Queen, Kraftwerk, and Nick Drake. Canasta could be that. Or they could be six individuals in six different corners of your local bar, all quietly keeping their rock and roll secret, their magic Canasta decoder rings kept on their pocketed hand, and you none the wiser. What they really are is tight, practiced, and pretty. Canasta’s six members play a brisk sort of chamber-pop, with violins and clarinet swirling around Priest’s clear-toned voice, which can be as percussive as it is melodic. Even on the slow-burning “Shadowcat”, which begins starkly with just a handful of minor piano chords, Priest emphasizes every syllable of every word, mumbling nothing. For someone occasionally unsure of what to say, he sure says it with confidence. “You can try but you won’t pin this on me / You were broken before we came to be”, he taps out amidst the quiet storm of keys and strings, building slowly in a smart, elegant arrangement.
The band resurrects the excellent “Slow Down Chicago” from its sold-out, self-released EP Find the Time. The words flow staccato, “I’d like to ask this town to slow down / Selfish, I know, but I think it’s come to this” over an organ base. On the chorus he trades lines with a barroom-style choir “From the corner of State and Madison I cry, ‘Chicago slow down!’”, like the catchy, optimistic flipside of Thom Yorke bleating “Idiot, slow down, slow down” on Radiohead’s “The Tourist”. Both songs effectively address the increasing pace of modern life; Canasta’s is just, well, more pop. All that means is that you’re more likely to dance your feet than cry into your pint. The wildly propulsive “An Apology” recalls school days as a sensitive lad throwing up after egging an immigrant’s house, and making the mistake of revealing his crush to a girl (then spending the rest of recess in a tree). To recall the conundrum of “Microphone Song”, the events of “An Apology” don’t shake the world, but the small, private moments of life are just as consequential as the Big Questions we expect pop music to pose.
At just over an hour We Were Set Up is a lot to digest, and slightly more of a blessing than a curse. Though it’s paced well (particularly the mid-album combo of “Heads Hurt Better” and the gorgeous Edith Frost duet “Just a Star”), you might find yourself taking the album in smaller doses. Each song is a barrage of hooks and nuanced performances. Elizabeth Lindau’s violin shines throughout the album, though everyone gets more than their share of standout moments. While Canasta might modestly retreat from the position of having something “valuable” to say, its value to the pop music scene continues to grow as it broadens both its geographical and musical reach.