[4 August 2014]
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada’s Arkells is an acclaimed act in their home country. While their 2008 debut album, Jackson Square, had a rock radio hit with “Oh, the Boss is Coming!”, things really heated up once they won a Juno Award (Canada’s answer to the Grammys) for New Group of the Year. Then, their sophomore album, Michigan Left brought even more fame and acclaim as the band won the Juno for Group of the Year in April 2012. The group recorded a seven-inch of Motown covers earlier this year, and, now, Arkells are unleashing their third record, High Noon, and, boy, is it a stunner.
While I wouldn’t say there’s a definite Motown influence on this album, its best moments are peppered with nods to ‘70s-style pop rock (final song “Systematic” has a vaguely disco meets Electric Light Orchestra feel to it), and this backwards looking gaze suits the outfit’s music just fine. High Noon, if the title wasn’t enough of a nod for you, is infused with references to the past, including a namecheck of the movie Dirty Dancing and references to lovers calling on pay phones. Basically, High Noon is a synthesis of all things old and gold, and while it might be a bit lopsided in places, these songs truly soar straight into the stratosphere.
If there’s anything that Arkells do well, it is that they are the masters of the big, booming chorus—a little to the expense of the verses, but the verses usually serve as a means of getting you to that sweet spot of a refrain. And once you get there, Arkells nail you against the wall with their giddy brand of infectious goodness. The album begins with “Fake Money”, which is precisely the sound of the members of Coldplay meeting Bruce Springsteen in a dark alleyway so they could get into a drunken fistfight with the louts from the Pogues. It’s a great start, but things just keep building from there. Probably my favourite song of the record comes three tracks deep with “Cynical Bastards”, which would be what you get if the Replacements joined forces with the Cars to deliver a pop power anthem for the summer of ‘14. It’s the sort of thing that inspires endless replays of the repeat button.
“Never Thought This Would Happen” is precisely a primo example of the group’s ability to deftly take you from a standard verse to a chorus that comes after you with a hammer and smashes itself into your brain. It may leave you short of breath. And “Hey Kids!” has a barroom piano-led vibe for its start, but then transforms into something you might have heard in the late ‘70s on AM radio, complete with orchestral stabs. If anything, the song sort of reminds me of something Hall and Oates might have pulled off circa Private Eyes (and if you don’t think Private Eyes isn’t a great album, to heck with ya).
While there’s hardly a weak moment on the album, the change in styles is a little jarring. And I’m still scratching my head as to why “Come to Light” is the album’s first single, when there are better examples on the LP that showcase the band’s scorching sound. Still “Come to Light” is a piano hammered song that is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Petty, if Tom Petty had joined forces with the likes of Billy Joel. And “11:11” has an unmemorable verse, but then you get to the, you know, and the whole thing has a remotely M83 feel to it, which is not surprising given that the album’s producer, Tony Hoffer, worked with them. “Dirty Blonde” has a hook that seems vaguely reminiscent of something else, and I can’t put my finger on it, but it definitely has an ‘80s feel to the song – and, again, the Hall and Oates reference floats to the surface here.
“What Are You Holding on To?” has a vaguely soul resonance to it, making it a kind of spiritual cousin to some of Spoon’s material. Still, the album does finish on a somewhat weak note with “Systematic”, which might be my least favourite song on the album, mainly because it’s a little too out there in left field as a song. For some reason, it doesn’t just quite nestle nicely with the rest of the album, though that chorus is actually a fitting way to end the album, pulsing violins and all.
So what we get with High Noon is an LP that is high on the sounds and images of the past, which is not necessarily a bad thing as the group mines a memorable era of music and has the hooks to back up their heft. The record is choc-a-bloc full of memorable choruses, and you could practically string together a compilation of them on YouTube or Soundcloud and almost make the world’s most awesome song out of it. There’s some real pop magic going on here, and if it wasn’t for some lackadaisical verses, High Noon would get the ultimate high marks from this listener.
Still, High Noon is a fairly exceptional album, particularly as it doesn’t have a bonafide Canadian sound while not necessarily making market concessions to the States or a worldwide audience. Arkells seem to exist solely on a plateau of their own, and that’s what makes them so darn special. Who knows? Perhaps with just the right amount of luck, and with the right radio push, this band might no longer just be collecting Juno Awards and other accolades, but may have a Grammy or two (or three) to put on their mantle. High Noon is almost that special of an album, and, despite some minor inherent weaknesses, this is definitely one to purchase and check out.