[15 March 2010]
A few months ago, while browsing through one of Vancouver’s top indie record shops, I came across an older record from Parlour Steps, a local act. I’d heard of them in passing and I was intrigued. I asked one of the clerks about the band, and in a typically succinct manner, he replied carelessly, “Good stuff. Smart music.”
In a few words, this dude had said a lot. “Smart music” is a bit of a loaded term, but months after listening to their 2007 release Ambiguoso, I still can’t think of a better word to describe their latest LP, The Hidden Names than that original description: “Smart.”
Opening with the light-hearted jaunty, jangle-heavy “As the World Turned Out”, The Hidden Names provides an interesting juxtaposition. Amidst the light-hearted rhythms, lead singer Caleb Stull presents some fairly pessimistic undertones. He laments on how the modern world’s dependency on technology and popular culture is sending those around him on a downward spiral, while still keeping listeners entertained with pitch-perfect pop. Parlour Steps borrow heavily from fellow Vancouverites A.C. Newman and the New Pornographers in this regard. And there’s an immense strength in what Parlour Steps have learnt throughout their career. The Hidden Names is the sound of a band that’s rising, and fast.
Precisely crafted, The Hidden Names rarely misses a beat with pitch-perfect indie pop gems that sound insanely mature. The Hidden Names follows patterns that have been proven by Parlour Steps’ predecessors in the past, while brushing a fresh coat of relaxed yet progressive paint on these patterns. Clearly, Parlour Steps owe a debt of gratitude to their surroundings, as the natural beauty of their hometown of Vancouver almost seeps through these deft, bouncy, and altogether clever 13 tracks.
“It seems the more we learn, the less we know” was something a University professor taught me long ago. The sentiment has stuck with me, and Stull bares no bones in reiterating that very sentiment on “Little Pieces”, a swaying, jazzy number. It’s yet another gleaming pop jem, one of many on The Hidden Names. The track sets itself apart with hints of a shredding guitar solo, one of the few on the record. But Stull and company don’t need to rely on conventional bits of rock and roll. They’re taking steps to craft their own sound—some call it “thought rock”, but there’s nothing too intellectual on the record. Well, nothing to scare off fans of the lyrical deception of acts like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. And if you’re into the groovy pop musings of a band like Spoon, odds are you’ll quickly be seduced by The Hidden Names.
But while we’re playing the “It Sounds Like” game, this writer would be remiss not to mention “Mad, Mad Day,” the record’s closing track. On first listen, I couldn’t help but singing “When I’m 64”. No, that’s not to suggest that Parlour Steps sound like a certain four-piece out of Liverpool. But I can’t help but think that if The Hidden Names found its way into Paul McCartney’s stereo, he wouldn’t mind in the slightest. In fact, he’d probably crack a massive smile, as most will upon hearing this record.
“If God has a sense of humour / She’s got a cruel temper”, lead singer Caleb Stull coos on “Miraculous”, a bouncy piano-infused little ditty. It’s this kind of mature playfulness that can be heard everywhere on The Hidden Names; yet another step in the right direction for Parlour Steps.