[27 October 2009]
It would be an exercise in beating around the bush to speak of Toronto’s Do Make Say Think without also talking about post-rock, whose short history has become thornier than its coiner could have imagined. What began as a style using guitars, basses, and drums to atmospheric ends soon welcomed all the rock in the world that didn’t rock. Then, in the late ‘90s, bands took a select few trends already in the canon and turned them into monoliths, epic in scope and authoritarian in their rigidity, and all of a sudden the name “post-rock” became as untidy as it was basically useless. Years after it was given the kibosh by musicians and even by critics, Do Make Say Think remain some of the only performers to legitimize it as a term of art, playing their music as if the divisions between Talk Talk, Slint, Tortoise, Don Caballero, and Explosions in the Sky simply don’t exist.
The most striking attribute of Do Make Say Think’s sixth full-length record—its overall structure—is, in fact, a post-rock cliché: four long-form compositions running an average of 10 minutes, each one titled after a word in the quintet’s name. Such a framework predictably brings their sylvan songs to a very large scale, though it may have also created a peculiar limitation. Examined in detail, the tracks do run along their own particular currents, but the gestalt of the record reveals that three of the pieces more or less follow a traditional arc that includes establishing a theme, building momentum, reaching an apotheosis, and coming down. Is long-form somehow more confining than the three-to-four-minute spurt? That aside, Other Truths finds the band in excellent shape, still hitting the sweet spot where skilled musicianship and rugose sonic textures meet. They’ve been known to lay down their tracks in barns and other organic spaces where the sounds can mingle with the rest of the natural world; on this album, guitarist/bassist Ohad Benchetrit’s home studio continues to highlight the incidental beauty of Do Make Say Think’s recording processes and self-production.
Their approach suits the righteous opener “Do”, loosening its emo/pop-punk riffage such that the song almost boogies. Midway through, brass instruments and wordless vocals (courtesy of Akron/Family and Lullabye Arkestra, whose drummer Justin Small is also member of DMST) stuff themselves into the gaps, and the whole ensemble kicks up a dense clatter for several minutes until they tucker out and restate the track’s theme as liquefied single notes. “Make” begins as a pleasant groove, with crisp drums expressing a little jazz swing, before it stiffens abruptly and becomes quite dark, nearly approaching the violent grandiosity of compatriots Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s here that the group sounds somewhat commonplace, working the drama to the point of overcooking it. When, in the final minute, they step back and allow a horn section to sing a quiet elegy for the fallen (sounds a bit like Jóhann Jóhannsson), they conjure a brief swell of real power.
The record’s second half feels comparatively ingratiating, carrying the listener on its back without asking much in return. There’s a subdued jubilance about “Say”, and each time the guitars lock arms with the trumpets and stand up to repeat their chorus, I imagine they’re saying something about the triumph of spirit. In these instances I begin to realize how it’s possible that Do Make Say Think—once as tortuous as Mogwai—could be associated with the breezy pop experimentalism of Broken Social Scene, who share two members with DMST, as well as the country-folk of Akron/Family at their least freaky. Speaking of which, all of you who have heard the country/post-rock connection and were called insane, take note: “Think” ain’t nothin’ but a bass and a couple of twanging guitars on a dusty plain, surrounded by sustained vocal “oohs” like a pack of tired coyotes in the distance.
Unlike the quintet’s last effort, You, You’re a History in Rust, the most rewarding moments of Other Truths are often the most tempered. Maybe it’s because of the drawn-out song structures that when things settle down amid the sturm und drang, the music is amenable to contemplation and reflection. Or maybe the group just knows how to be delicate—always their underrated strength. But whether they’re blowing the roof off or thatching it straw by straw, Do Make Say Think continue to engender some of the most honest, unpretentious, group-oriented rock of their time. They could do what they’re doing for the rest of their lives and I don’t think it would make any difference. As evidenced by the reaction to Other Truths in the weeks before it saw the light of day (“Four long-form tracks? Ay, caramba!”), little tweaks to their formula get us pretty excited each time they emerge with something new. But it’s the heart in this band’s music that keeps us ever listening.