[10 July 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
No CD library should be without at least a little bit of dream pop. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of airy, atmospheric music that’s best suited for late nights, whether you’re staring at a computer screen or gazing up at the aurora borealis. The echoing guitars, the lugubrious drumming, the indecipherable singing, and the overall vastness of that sound has yielded some great albums by the likes of the Cocteau Twins, Galaxie 500, and of course, My Bloody Valentine, and it’s thrilling when a band can take such a limiting, monotonous style and create something entirely original (like Sigur Rós’s Ágætis Byrjun), but when it gets mediocre (like The Stratford Four’s Love & Distortion, it becomes unbearable.
Southern Ontario band A Northern Chorus want a part of the dream pop action, and their second album, Spirit Flags, when you first start listening to it, does the job just fine. There are the soaring arcs of droning guitars a la Sigur Ros, the slow crescendos of orchestral indie rock like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, plenty of introspective lyrics, the pretty vocal harmonies you hear on Cocteau Twins albums, and even a hint of Eighties outfit The Dream Academy (you know, the band who had the hit song “Life in a Northern Town”). The only problem is, after forty minutes’ worth of rather gratifying music, it just goes on and on at the same painfully slow pace, for a brain-deadening, soul-crushing 64 minutes. It’s like being trapped on a busy freeway behind a little hatchback full of grannies; you just want to get the heck away. Thankfully, your CD player has a stop button.
When heard a little bit at a time, Spirit Flags has its very pleasing moments, the kind of record that, if you heard it when you walked into a record store that was playing it, you’d be compelled to say, “Hmm. Nice.” The band (a sextet featuring guitarists Pete Hall and Stu Livingstone, bassist Owen Davies, flautist Julie MacDonald, Violinist Sarah MacGregor, and drummer Marshall Bureau) excels at creating warm, enveloping sounds, mixed with a heavy chamber music influence. “Song & I” is a great, lightweight shoegazer tune, with waves of guitars, and typically dreamy lyrics bolstered by multilayered harmonies (“Let’s wait ‘til the morning sunlight dawns/Day to break and shine bright here/Without this day we’d not seem clear”). “Fragile Day” has more of a pastoral, Belle & Sebastian feel; a lone, droning guitar is joined by acoustic guitar and some sweet-sounding flute and viola, as the song takes a jab at modern society (“Save your eyes/You’re blind/This world’s so confined/By people with rage for life/They’re wasting our time”). The lush instrumental “Red Carpet Blues” is superb, the closest thing to an upbeat song on the album, boasting an Eighties college rock feel, and “Let the Parrots Speak For Themselves” takes on a hymnlike quality, building up to a soaring chorus. “Take Your Canvas Everywhere” gets as deliberately, intoxicatingly slow as an Angelo Badalamenti score, while the mini-epic “Louder Than Love” picks up the pace again, gradually building up to a majestic climax.
After that, though, the rest of Spirit Flags gets a bit dicey, and as the end tediously draws near like a prairie town far off on the horizon, you’ve pretty much had your fill. The band’s performance on “Mombassa” is good, but the inclusion of samples of fiery rants by evangelist Peter Youngren comes off as a heavyhanded Godspeed You! Black Emperor imitation. “Moment Fit to Remind” lives up to the high quality of the first six tracks, with more of the same mellow sounds, but when you start thinking “more of the same” while listening to any album, it doesn’t bode well. By the time you get through the excruciatingly sluggish songs “I Dreamt the World had Ended”, “Eilan Donan”, and “Flag in Hand”, you’re more than ready to pop in some loud Turbonegro to get the blood flowing again.
A Northern Chorus, had they trimmed 15 or 20 minutes off this album, would have created an excellent dream pop record, but instead, this is merely a decent piece of work. They do the whole ethereal thing very well, but everything gets bogged down by too much repetition of the same formula. Taken in small doses, it’s makes for some worthwhile listening, but anyone who tries to listen to the record all the way through shouldn’t be operating heavy machinery while doing so. Instead of feeling good after listening to the whole thing, your spirit simply flags.