[8 April 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Toronto’s Brad Weber is probably best known currently as the live drummer for Caribou. However, he’s busied himself in recent years with a sort of “side project” called Pick a Piper, which has released a couple of acclaimed EPs and now boasts fellow members Clint Scrivener, Angus Fraser, and Dan Roberts, among others. And that “among others”, as far as Pick a Piper’s self-titled debut disc goes, includes a bevy of guest vocalists from fairly well known bands (in indie circles) such as the Ruby Suns, Enon/Brainiac, Born Ruffians, and Braids. So there’s a lot going on with Pick a Piper as an entity of itself, but, yes, the band does sound a little like Caribou in all of its sun-kissed glory—which is either an asset or a liability based on your point of view.
Still, Pick a Piper is not a bad statement for a debut full-length, one that sees Weber exploring the intersection of electronica dance music with the more organic sounds of rock music. It’s an appealing mixture, even if you get the sense that you’ve heard this somewhere before. In fact, there are times when Pick a Piper recalls the work of Broken Social Scene a bit in its hazy, gauzy glory, which makes you wonder why this band isn’t on Arts & Crafts, where it would make a good home. Oh, by the way, before I forget, this album is true to the band name: there’s actually a bit of flute found on the record. So Pick a Piper is an apt band moniker. And the band does want you to “drink up the potion”—among the first words to be found on this record. Whether or not you quench your thirst from the Flavor Aid (as Jim Jones’ followers did not gulp down cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, as much as the popular saying would lead you to believe) is entirely dependent on how much you like organic-sounding dance pop.
If there’s any failing to this disc, it’s that it doesn’t really have much of an identity. There’s the aforementioned fact that this isn’t too far removed from the music of Weber’s live bandmate, Dan Snaith, and, what’s more, the fact that this is a “star studied” affair insofar as guest vocalists go, means that there’s not really a cohesive sound, at least vocally. Pick a Piper, then, feels a bit all over the map, and more of a dalliance than a bona-fide force of vitality. And, too, Weber really tends to lose his grip on pop song structure on the longer tracks, such as a skronk jazz-infused “South to Polynesia” (almost seven minutes long) and opener “Lucid in Fjords” (more than five minutes long). And, at only eight songs in length, this album feels a smidge on the truncated side. That said, there are luscious moments, such as the female-vocal drenched “Once Were Leaves”, which also boasts propulsive drum beats that punch their way out of your speakers. And John Schmersal of Enon/Brainiac leaves a mark on lead single, “All Her Colours”, which is arguably the most straightforward and danceable thing to be had on the record.
There’s also some welcome experimentation—though the track is overlong and filled with one too many movements, it’s still nice to hear some saxamaphone on “South to Polynesia”, which nudges the music into late ‘70s era Steely Dan, which, trust me, is not a bad thing. (I profess a love of all things named Aja.) What’s more, “Zenaida” has a dreamy cadence to it with what appears to be some plucked acoustic guitars (or keyboards meant to sound like same), and some computer-assisted glossed up vocals. It may have you reaching for the Stars—either the celestial bodies or the Montreal-based band—despite the fact that the song, sadly, stops on a dime before it even reaches three minutes.
All in all, Pick a Piper is not a bad album, and, despite its similarities to the better-known group that Weber belongs to on stage, it earns some respect for being warm electronica instead of being clinically cold and robotic. It’s just that the long player doesn’t really cohere as it should, and it feels more and more like a way for Weber to earn a paycheck when Caribou is off the road. Still, those into dance music—and particularly dance music from the Great White North—will find something that may appeal to them and find remarkable. It’s just too bad that this feels like a kind of singles collection without an articulated voice, as Weber and company do have a few decent ideas to throw out there. Your take may differ, but my recommendation would be to preview the tracks online and download a few that matches your particular worldview or has your favorite guest indie rock world vocalist or vocalists on it and download those, rather than shilling out for the entire album. I suppose I’m saying that this might have made for a better EP, which is faint praise. That’s not to say that Pick a Piper is a washout, it’s just hardly the stuff that will keeps rats captivated long enough to be lead astray out of a village. Just as the fairy tale I’m referring to there, Pick a Piper is about paying those who are due. In this case, Weber and cohorts better be drawing up a blank cheque to Snaith, as this record proves that Weber and his “band” owe him at least a little bit.