You wouldn’t expect the Most Serene Republic to write a song like “Little Boxes”, even if their album’s dealing with essentially the same theme – though instead of houses, maybe for these guys it’s the weeds are all the same in the ticky-tacky suburbs of Toronto. If these are the larger concerns of Population, the Canadian group’s generally impressive sophomore album, the reaction’s not irony, it’s controlled and meticulously layered outrage.
The Most Serene Republic has made some changes from that who gave us the 2005 debut Underwater Cinematographer, and it shows a band continuing to improve, and mature. Percussion is given a new prominence, which fuels much of the new material’s upbeat (almost outraged) feel. The vocals, throughout, are de-emphasized as much as possible—often you can’t make out the words they’re buried so deep in the wall-of-sound orchestral textures. It’s not just the multiple layers of instruments, it’s the fact that notes are repeated so many times—rounds and rounds of eighth-notes, working themselves up into frenzied crescendos—that there’s little room for our ears to wrap around coherent thematic ideas, lyric-wise. Which is all intended: Population is not meant to be easy—you’ve got to let its unusual melodies and harmonic changes become familiar, before you begin to appreciate the alienation and desperation that soaks through their words.
In a nod to the large-scale viewpoint hinted at in the album’s title, Population opens with the sound of an orchestra tuning—the open fifths of violins’ open strings in that familiar dissonance. As if to say, here are all the voices of the people, and we’re going to make sense of it for you. It’s a pretty big ambition, but though they’re never exactly subtle, MSR shy away from the bombastic dramatics of a group like Arcade Fire. Instead it’s texture that provides the landscape for this journey. Words and melodies fall by the wayside; in one or two songs, even “la la la” and “da da da” choruses are robbed of their singalong nature. Because they’re not as important, for this band, as creating sound paintings to convey their emotions.
Part of the band’s expanded ambition manifests itself in orchestral passages that, at first, seem to do little more than establish a mechanism for the exposition of new sounds. Songs often incorporate extended introductions, the warming up of an orchestra in which you hear the snippet of a famous violin solo, tossed out with virtuosity between the din of tuning instruments. And the ends of songs billow out into silence with a similar disregard for closure: ticking/tacking pizzicato, randomly-dropped piano notes over white noise and the sound of studio ambience. This open-endedness is meant to be a representation, I guess, of the messy complexity of the modern existence, or something. But there’s nothing subtle about the way MSR operate—the music still bounces from idea to idea and theme to theme with an almost manic energy. Up and down on alternating notes like an electrified and coked-up Sigur Ros.
The addition of Emma Ditchburn on vocals is all good. Her voice is light and blends easily with Adrian Jewett’s traditionally angsty tenor. But more importantly, she also fits in well with the remnants of the band’s widescreen sense of wonder that’s a hangover from Underwater Cinematographer, giving the moments of pure joy greater depth. On “The Men Who Live Upstairs”, when the two vocalists sing together the phrase “Uncontrolled division of cells / From the men who live upstairs”, the description sticks. Not just because it’s a haunting description of a cancer growing, but for the moment of openness in an otherwise fairly obtuse musical landscape. The song quickly moves from waterlogged ballad to fully-textured orchestral indie rock, the final wall of sound an endpoint in itself (regardless of whether the thematic material introduced earlier has been adequately dealt with). Here, and throughout Population, things turn darker—or at least more full-on—with a growing predictability.
No doubt of it, MSR can still do the whole grandiose orchestral melodic thing to near perfection; sections of “Present of Future End” and “Humble Peasants” are enough to convince anyone of the fact, with great snippets of brass melody buoyed by thick-textured background. And if not all of the band’s musical choices are as inspired—the saxophone and easy-listening jazz keys of “A Mix of Sun and Cloud” belong on some forgotten Christmas compilation—these missteps are generally forgivable. It’s rare enough these days to find a band whose second album is a consistent step forward from its debut, but the Most Serene Republic have managed to do just that with Population. Take the time to get to know it, and you’ll find plenty that’s rewarding buried beneath the dense orchestrations.
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