[28 May 2014]
Calgary, Alberta’s Reuben Bullock is a late bloomer when it comes to making music. He first picked up a guitar when he was 21 years old. But it doesn’t show on his debut album as Reuben and the Dark, Funeral Sky. Instead, what we get with this particular long player is if Mumford and Sons crossed paths with Arcade Fire (What? That album title wasn’t enough of a tip-off for you?). There’s stuff that works, and works wonderfully, and some stuff that doesn’t work, and falls deeply into the dirt. However, this is a record that belies the fact that the band joined the likes of Florence and the Machine on stage, after the latter heard this group’s album playing in a local record shop. There’s a certain polish to Funeral Sky, so even if it doesn’t reach the storied heights of an act signed to Arts & Crafts, probably Canada’s premiere indie label for being home to such bands as Broken Social Scene and its various offshoots, it still is something that comes across as being interesting, even if it isn’t as honed as one would like. And there’s something that you want to champion for this release, if not for the fact that Western Canada tends to get the short end of the stick when it comes to getting attention. You have to pretty much move to Toronto, which is considered in most areas of Canada as being the center of the universe, to command anything in the form of attention.
The album’s most infectious track is “Marionette”, which has a very gospel feel to it. It is the album’s most wholly original moment. It’s stark and bleak, and lives up to the title of the band. It pulsates with a dark energy, and it runs amok with an unfettered amount of energy. However, that said, the record gets off to a strong start, too. “Bow and Arrow” is borrowed from the classic sounds of early Arcade Fire, and is a sterling document. “Devil’s Time”, meanwhile, apes the sound of “Keep the Car Running” but without the Springsteen overtones. The backing vocals, again, reference gospel music and it is commanding and worthy of attention. “Shoulderblade”, on the other hand, is a lilting folk ballad, an example of the Mumford and Sons influence, just with an added horn section that feels borrowed from a Broken Social Scene track. I’d be damned if I didn’t hear Bullock’s voice catch somewhere in the middle of this song, which makes it worthy of respect. “Standing Still”, on the other hand, is a piano ballad that conveys a certain feeling of emotion. It’s hard to not get choked up listening to this. It’s that affecting.
However, when this album stumbles, it hits the ground hard. “Rolling Stone” borrows lyrically quite heavily from a certain Bob Dylan song, and can we have a moratorium on songs that reference Dylan? It’s hard to listen to this song without thinking of what came before it, and this dampens its effect. And the album ends on its weakest tracks. The title track is an instrumental dirge that goes absolutely nowhere. And “Black Water”, which finishes the record, is a cringe-worthy song that might make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck for all of the wrong reasons. It’s an organ led ditty that doesn’t absolutely nothing. If this is a forward looking reference to the next Reuben and the Dark album, I don’t think I want to hear it. In fact, the band saves the absolute worst of the album for the very end, as though the group simply ran out of steam and didn’t know which direction to head off in. In fact, the weakest material on the LP can be found in the latter half of the record. “A Memory’s Lament” is a simple banjo led number that merely regurgitates the feeling left by “Marionette”. At this point, you have to wonder why the band didn’t simply record an EP, leaving the strongest tracks for that sort of an effort.
Overall, though, Funeral Sky is a engaging listen, even if it doesn’t fire on all cylinders as one would like. The folksiness of the album is enjoyable, and even when the record stumbles, there’s something of interest to have for the listener. When “Can’t See the Light” kicks in, even if it might remind you of a certain band that calls Montreal home, you cannot help but feel a feeling of unfettered feeling of absolute joy. For all of its twists and turns, Funeral Sky is a folksy record of reckoning. While it might be ropey, and not as engaging as fully as one might expect, there are enough good songs to make up for any of this record’s inherent weaknesses. This is something that you want to champion, if only for the fact that bands from Calgary rarely make it big in the grand scheme of Canadian music. Added to this fact that its leading songwriter didn’t pick up an instrument until well into his salad years, and what you get here is a document of someone basically still feeling his way in the realm of songwriting. If anything, this makes one wonder what future Reuben and the Dark releases might sound like, even if, in the end, the promise that the lackluster final tracks point towards a stunted growth. As it stands right now, though, Funeral Sky is a record of promise that looks forward towards what Bullock might be capable of, and there’s enough here to earn commendations of respect and worthiness. While it may have its share of faults and deficiencies, Funeral Sky is a record that looks into the future, and I would hope and pray that Reuben and the Dark only get much, more better than here from here on out.