There’s a reason most reviews of Run Chico Run records are only one paragraph long: they’re an incredibly difficult band to review. In other words, they force we music critics to actually work for once, to actually buckle down and attempt to put into words why the Victoria, British Columbia duo is so darn compelling. More often than not, though, the best most critics have done is admit defeat, toss off a lazy single paragraph, and haul out a stream of tired adjectives: “Unclassifiable.” “Absurd.” “Esoteric.” “Weird.” On a personal note, I must confess to having abandoned hope of filling out a 700-word review of 2004’s marvelously strange Shashbo, in favor of a more concise 270-word piece for this site. A year and a half later, with another slice of West Coast indie rock strangeness ready to enthrall, befuddle, and hypnotize, the band deserves some more detailed critical attention, so it’s time for a proper attempt, thesaurus at the ready.
Much like their fellow Victoria brethren Casey Mercer (Frog Eyes) and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown), multi-instrumentalists Matt Skillings and Thomas Shields excel at creating an enticing art rock/indie pop hybrid that draws from a wide musical palette, and in true Western Canadian fashion, there’s not a lick of pretense present in the music whatsoever, as underneath all the eccentricity, there’s a much more straightforward pop songwriting element that keeps it all grounded. Nothing in the music is arbitrary; even the stranger departures seem to have a purpose, leading towards rewarding payoffs. It was apparent on the charming Shashbo, and even more so on Slow Action, which improves on the lo-fi feel of the previous disc, the more polished production emphasizing the impressive fact that such fleshed-out, full-sounding music is the product of just two musicians.
Both Skillings and Shields share lead vocal duties, and the differences in each person’s style quickly become apparent. Shields’s lively singing style projects an almost playful quality throughout the five tracks he sings on. “Clockwork Crows” bounces along at a new wave-ish pace (more similar to The Nein than, say, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!) as Shields spews esoteric poetry before the song dissolves into a whimsical reggae-inspired bridge. “Oneanotherwell” bears a strong resemblance to Dan Bejar’s contributions to the New Pornographers (aided by a hummable Moog synth melody), while “Slow Action is the Best Action” melds Akron/Family-like harmonizing and feedback drones with the kind of Weill-esque cabaret that we heard on Shashbo. The cutely bizarre seven minute epic “Broadcaster” makes like Modest Mouse going krautrock, as a pulsating motorik style beat gently underscores lilting guitar licks and chiming keyboard stabs, Shields’s ebullient falsetto sounding more charming than grating.
Skillings, meanwhile, brings considerably more mood to the album. The electric piano-dominated “Smitten” is a darkly gorgeous tune, and is not the first time Skillings’s deadpan tenor has resembled that of Thom Yorke. “Old Men’s Clothes” features a cool, psychedelic rock guitar riff that hearkens back to early Flaming Lips, the funereal “Silver Train Hour” combines bass, drums, piano, and organ, lurching along like Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead (but with, dare I say, a stronger sense of melody), and “Little Hairs a Curling” will do just that to listeners, its sinewy blues riff and nocturnal organ darkening the mood even more, sending chills down our collective spines.
Slow Action is a timely reminder that there’s nothing wrong with being just a bit left of center in the songwriting department, just as long as the hooks are there. Like any other Run Chico Run album, it requires plenty of patience, but even cynical listeners will be surprised at how songs like “Broadcaster” and “Sportscars for Everyone” burrow their way into our subconscious. It’s yet another first-rate effort from one of Canada’s most underrated acts, one that deserves to be heard by more than dedicated Canadian indie rock enthusiasts, not to mention given a fitting, full-length review by yours truly. I’ve done my part, now it’s time for you to do yours, and give this talented duo some attention.
// Notes from the Road
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