Like many of their fellow Arts & Crafts ilk, Young Galaxy craft pop music that is chock full of texture. Comprised of Stephen Ramsey, former touring guitarist for Stars, and partner Catherine McCandless, the comparisons to many other Canadian buzz bands is immediately apparent. However, at its best, their eponymous debut album carves out its own distinctive niche in the now saturated landscape of north-of-the-border indie rock.
Album opener and lead single “Swing Your Heartache” shows the band going for the throat right away. The six-minute songs paints a musical landscape the Flaming Lips would admire. The reverbed vocals and faint noise set over steady drumming gives the song a trance-like pulse. Ramsey whisper sings the verses until, well into the track, the band breaks into the sublime chorus. McCandless joins Ramsey here and guitars come in and the song elevates in every way possible. Just one song into the album, Young Galaxy appear to be a band both capable and unafraid to go for broke on a track.
“No Matter How Hard You Try” is another strong track, with the same brooding texture, and while it might not swell and rise the way “Swing Your Heartache” does, it keeps the stakes of the album up as Ramsey sings “You won’t get out of this world alive, no matter how hard you try.” The first half of the album continues the same formula, and while its solid, none of it matches up to the opener. Like Stars, Ramsey and McCandless share lead vocals on the record. She turns in a spirited performance on “Outside the City” where her voice is buried in the mix, but the play ends up working. Perhaps knowing all the layers she’d have to fight through, she belts out the words in a throbbing-forehead-vein shout that is as tuneful as it is plaintiff. She sings a few others on the record, but this is by far her finest moment.
“The Sun’s Coming Up and My Plane’s Going Down” serves as a mid-album hinge and serves to sum up the albums strengths and weaknesses. It is as slow-building a track as you’re likely to find on any record, and is heavy on the same overcast miasma that’s set over much of the album’s first half. However, it also goes on too long and ends up settling for landscape and sacrificing song craft. By the end of the track, I don’t know what the song-title refrain is supposed to mean to me or to Ramsey. It ends up sounding more like an interesting idea for a song than an interesting song.
Also, as a hinge, it shifts the album away from all the best stuff going on. The layers and texture are almost totally absent from the second half of the record. In their place, we get bland rockers like “Searchlight” that might sound okay if Young Galaxy hadn’t already proven themselves capable of much more. “Embers” is a McCandless-sung ballad that is almost a clean, straight-up acoustic track that just doesn’t hold up to her other performances here. Closer “The Alchemy Between Us” tries to build the album back up in its closing minutes, by working up to the loudest use of layered instrumentation on the album. And though their notion to return to what they do best is right on, the execution is off. They build a thickly-settled landscape on the track, without a doubt, but there’s no restraint to it, no real choices made, so the song’s closing moments sound more cluttered than dense.
Lyrically, the album rests a little too much on a vague notion of personal choice as political action. “Swing Your Heartache” employs a “we” as narrator, and Ramsey sings the song as if pitted against the establishment. It no doubt makes for a unifying moment in concert, but lines like “Getting older doesn’t always mean you’ve grown” don’t pack the punch they could, and instead rely on the liberal leanings of the indie rock community as a whole to provide their power. Still, when Young Galaxy nails it, their music can be damn galvanizing, strong lyrics or no. At its finest moments, Young Galaxy holds its audience captive, and gives the listener the swelling feeling you get when you hear something working to its full potential, when you hear songs that make you want to spring into action, to create something, anything. One can only hope that in their future endeavors, Young Galaxy don’t subvert these moments with the more mundane offerings of their debut. They’ve shown their potential on this album, but haven’t quite realized it. Perhaps that’s the next step. They’ve figured how to swing their own heartache, maybe next time they’ll get you to swing yours along with them.