When you’re a musician in a place as pretty as Vancouver, British Columbia, how can you not feel as good-natured and ebullient as that city’s best-known indie rock acts? Cute indie pop has been coming out of Vancouver for years now, such as “cuddlecore” queens Cub, as well as the likes of Maow, Zumpano, Destroyer, and most recently, the young and sexy and ever-lovable New Pornographers. The music always seems to be simultaneously joyous and enigmatic, as bands execute that “aren’t we cute” schtick so well, that you either go along with it, or it annoys the hell out of you. If you can’t stand the overt puppydog-eyed preciousness of Vancouver indie pop, then don’t look now, because there’s another band to add to that list.
“The Gay and Vancouver go together like mini-skirts and birds”, read the facetious, exaggerated liner notes on the back of the Gay’s new album, You Know the Rules. Comprised of former members of such bands as the aforementioned Maow, the Tennessee Twin, Vancouver Nights, and Superconductor, the Gay have been touring with the likes of the New Pornographers for the past couple years, and it’s more than a little obvious that they derive their sound from that group (New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle produced the album, not so coincidentally). The thing is, they’re trying too hard to be clever. The band’s moniker is about as witty as naming your band the Music, and as for the tunes, the band sounds so determined to come up with another “Letter from An Occupant”, but compared to the aural feast of an album like Electric Version, what we wind up hearing sounds like a musical version of table scraps. Oh, and did I mention there’s an accordion?
That’s not to say the album is completely repellent. In fact, some of it is rather affable and charming. Unfortunately, it rarely gets any better than just plain “nice”. The Gay spread the lead vocals among its five members (four women, one guy; it’s never specified which female member is singing lead vocals), and although there’s a definite lack of a bewitching female voice like New Pornographer Neko Case or young and sexy’s Lucy Brain, the vocal harmonies are well done, with the entire band contributing at times. “Opulent Canine” is the album’s most memorable track, buoyed by that darn accordion (whaddya know, the gimmick kind of works), an endearingly clunky guitar lick, and a soaring chorus that would make Carl Newman proud. “Critics” continues in that same New Pornographers/Zumpano mold, but is more understated and sweet, especially when they sing gently, “If the critics are so wrong, why do you have to be so tough?” The plaintive, wispy, twee pop of “Cindy Lou” is another standout, in which the band namechecks rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, while “Fishin’ Jim” has Maija Martin’s accordion adding a playful Cajun flair to an already cute song.
Aside from that, You Know the Rules just wears thin, amounting to little more than indie pop-by-numbers. “Vacation” and “Lonely” both suffer from grating, tone-deaf vocal performances (again, we don’t know who’s singing lead on the tracks), while the tepid “Robert Smith” is merely enigmatic for the sake of being enigmatic. The band attempts to add a bit more flavor to the album with ballads like “Bed of Tines”, “Fidelity”, and “Palace”, but they turn out to be dull, turgid exercises that leave you craving more upbeat material in the same vein as “Opulent Canine” and “Fishin’ Jim”.
With such beguiling, bubbly albums as the New Pornographers’ two releases and young and sexy’s gorgeous Life through One Speaker, there will always be room for such pretty indie pop, as long as it’s done well. There’s no middle ground when it comes to this kind of music; when the product is merely okay, it wears out its welcome very quickly, and sadly, You Know the Rules lacks the staying power to be anything more than just a momentary diversion, and will probably wind up being forgotten when the next happy rock band from Vancouver comes around. Which should be any time now…