[23 July 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
There are interesting parallels to be drawn between the new, third album from Canada’s PS I Love You and Blue Öyster Cult. In 1979, BÖC released an album called Mirrors, which was an attempt at a more pop friendly sound. They replaced their long-time producer who had produced records by Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent, added female backing vocals to the odd track, and had the occasional acoustic guitar number. It bombed, and broke the band’s string of gold and platinum records, failing to yield a major chart hit along the lines of “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” or “Godzilla”.
Well, For Those Who Stay is PS I Love You’s Mirrors. Don’t get me wrong: the sound is as abrasive as ever (even moreso in places) and this is hardly a concession to the pop charts. However, just like Mirrors, For Those Who Stay boasts, yep, female backing vocalists, an acoustic guitar strummed song (“Bad Brain Day”) and the band’s first attempt at recording in a professional studio – in this case, the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse studios near Kingston, Ontario, Canada, which is where PS I Love You originated from.
What is notable is that, following 2010’s Meet Me at the Muster Station and 2012’s astounding Death Dreams, both of which were long-listed for the Polaris Prize, something has changed and even broken in the band – as evidence of the sound of something falling apart midway through final track “Hoarders”. It’s as though PS I Love You, which is a duo consisting of multi-instrumentalist Paul Saulnier and drummer Benjamin Nelson, have painted themselves into a corner and are unsure which direction to veer off in.
If there is a direction to For Those Who Stay, the biggest surprise is the band’s sudden fondness for ‘70s mainstream rock. The six-and-a-half-minute title track and centrepiece to the record boasts a guitar solo that could have originally appeared on a rock record from 1979 that was trying to cross over into disco territory. You know the sound: heavily reverbed guitar against a high-strung keyboard line. As a replica, it’s not bad and conveys a sense of nostalgia. However, there are probably going to be some people who are going to have a heart attack that the outfit is now trying to sound more like April Wine. It’s a departure – a radical one – for the once indie friendly group.
Still, those looking for the PS I Love You sound of yore are going to find something to adore here: it’s no coincidence that there’s a song titled “More of the Same” on this disc. The first song, “In My Mind at Least” is classic PS I Love You with Saulnier’s caterwauling vocals and bristling guitar licks, with the added envelop of a guitar sound that sounds remotely Cure-like. And the follow-up song, “Advice”, is classic PS I Love You: the song begins with guitar feedback and then a crunching, sustained, distorted guitar chord out of the Hüsker Dü playbook. There’s a brazen and excellent guitar solo towards the end of the song that, at the same time, seems remarkably restrained by Saulnier’s standards.
But—and you knew that a but was coming, didn’t you?—For Those Who Stay is clearly the band’s least disarming effort, filled with moments of silliness: “Bad Brain Day” is the band’s attempt to write something a little folksier, kind of the group’s “Never Talking to You Again” moment. However, it’s not even passable. It’s the kind of ditty that you would expect to hear a grade schooler singing on the playground. This is coming from a group that recorded blistering songs about death and despair? The takeaway is that the group is trying to do something fun and lighter, but “Bad Brain Day” slams the momentum of the record into a brick wall. Speaking of school, then there’s “Limestone Radio”. The song appears to be about a community-based radio station in Kingston, run in conjunction with a local high-school program. The song is among the most trivial of PS I Love You’s career, it’s a relatively catchy ode, but the chorus of “You are listening to Limestone Radio” is delivered so off-the-cuff that it’s difficult to take seriously.
What’s equally surprising is that, for the band’s first outing in a real, professional recording studio, the sound quality, is, at times, terrible. You can actually hear a slight buzzing sound running during the initial guitar-only part of the solo in the title track, which is a huge distraction. Tape hiss abounds in places, and “In My Mind at Least” has guitars pushed so far into the red, that the resulting distortion will probably cause the record needle to pop out of the groove on vinyl copies of this record. The lack of fidelity is baffling – even by indie rock’s standards. This goes so far to reduce the overall impact of the record.
However, that would be minimal in comparison to the fact that the LP’s second half is just average, at best. “Afraid of the Light” starts off on a slow burn, complete with a pseudo-gospel chorus, before settling into a mediocre pop ditty not quite benefitting the over-the-top intro. “Friends Forever” starts out promisingly enough with a guitar lick that recalls yet again the Cure, but the chorus is unmemorable at best. “More of the Same” could pass as vintage BTO – which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending upon your point of view. “Hoarders” is intriguing in that it boasts two separate movements, but the song hardly lingers as a close to the LP.
I hate to write this, as I’ve loved the previous two LPs, but For Those Who Stay is PS I Love You’s least compelling release. Sure, the band is trying new things, but the experiments and songwriting typically falls flat in places and the record only succeeds when it closely hues to the group’s previous sound. Perhaps PS I Love You should have just stuck to the gameplan, and their strengths, though something could be said about the outfit wanting to stretch out and try something new and novel, at least by their standards.
There are embarrassing missteps to be had here, and one wishes that, for this outing, the group just pruned their output back to an EP in length. Even the lyrics are untypically unquotable – there’s just not much here that is worthy of being said. While For Those Who Stay isn’t a total turkey, it’s a major slide backward into regression. Some might be enamoured by the nods to classic rock, and some might not, but what you get in the end is an album of little significance. This is a major disappointment for such a talent batch of musicians, and let’s just hope that this is simply a glitchy nadir, a throat-clearing exercise, before the group gets a stronger handle on its ultimate direction. And if there are any further parallels to be drawn between PS I Love You and Blue Öyster Cult, it’s this: the latter wound up recovering from its blunder with Mirrors with a return to basics sound. One can only hope PS I Love You will do the same. Otherwise, they might just wind up being a band whose fans will simply be made up of hardcore devotees, or, as the album title so cannily suggests, for those who stay.