Sick City: Nightlife

[19 November 2007]

By Andrew Blackie

The world has been taken over by teenage subcultures, and the leader of the revolution is that emo stereotype that everyone seems to hate. Those people wearing tight black jeans and too much make-up, all fuelled by the market of whiney bands who connect with their fans by looking the same as them, as well as reaching back into their past for the high-school angst that accompanies being dumped. They sprout out of nowhere (the Canadian tundra, in this case), but quickly take the world by storm with a glossy debut. There are a few metallic sprinklings here and there, but mostly it approximates Fall Out Boy and Thursday with calculated accuracy. We’re looking ahead, here, but if everyone in the band survives outing one without being hospitalized by a stray bottle, they’ll make a courageous pitch at outgrowing themselves for their next record. Then revert to the original formula when the sophomore didn’t sell so hot after all.

This new order revolves around promiscuity and underage sex. Every person has some true love held dearly and earnestly within their hearts, though they can tragically never have them due to an untold set of circumstances (the emo ballad). Thus, meaningless gratification, make-out sessions while drunk and the periodic injection are the only solutions (nearly every other typical emo song).

In some ways, Nightlife is that record.

Sick City has no reservation about plunging themselves headfirst into emo’s lifestyle, from the oh-so-suggestive cover art forwards. Make of that whatever you will, but the good news is that even while they have a hard time getting their minds off nightlife, empty relationships, and making out, their narcissistic self-importance is set to brilliantly dark slabs of pop-rock. You can hear the Cure’s gothic influence oozing through Sick City’s sex songs more often than that of their contemporaries. Only they shatter Robert Smith’s romantic couplets into shreds. The opening chord of “Antoinette” chimes forebodingly, then Josh Youngson sneers in icy falsetto, “I order drinks too tall / And take strong sips / I smell of smoke / But make up for it with my lips”. His voice stings and lingers accusatorily on every word, creating a very brooding, out-past-midnight atmosphere. The album as a whole has more in common with Jimmy Eat World’s Futures than Fall Out Boy’s Infinity on High. It displays a band’s growing pains, gloomy and unhappy even though, by the lyrics at least, they’re partying and getting lucky. There is a detached distance to that which makes Nightlife chilling.

“I’m like that kid without a line who gets the girl everytime”, Youngson anguishes in “Antoinette”, as if the very idea repulses him. He lies. His ‘lines’ are as double-entendre ridden and smugly stylized as any other emo band. “Could you be my Antoinette? / French girl to love and behead”, he proposes bluntly. The barely-there background keyboards are left to snake this number to the type of subtle climax Radiohead love to do.

Then there are repeated one-liner choruses, which have the habit of summing up the contents of each song so well it’s almost off-putting. Again, this is a double-edged sword. “XX & XY” manages to draw us into its cloudy uncertainty (about whether to go all the way with someone) by its conclusion even though its pretty generic call-and-response, while the worst offender, “Killing Ourselves to Feel”, has a sing-along refrain paralleled only by its nihilism: “So let’s drink to tonight and sing we don’t care.”

Loose moral bandwagon hoppers they may be, but Sick City is admirably strict on quality control, with only one real clunker in their debut set, an awkward and contrived instrumental title track that misses the album’s mark by a mile. Joel Neufeld’s heavy swing drumming gives “In the Millions” edge and grit, even though it’s only power chords run through distortion, and showing us that predictable can still be surprising, Youngson busts out a lush Backstreet Boys slow jam with nothing but a piano in “City Lights”, which is about waiting for that aforementioned special someone. So much for them living in the moment and drinking to tonight. Its placement at the end is even more baffling.

“Tora, Tora, My Dear Tora”, which also takes the prize for the most repetitions of a ridiculous girl’s name in a title for the year, so very nearly derails itself with the same schmaltz choir that ruined The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” (attention everyone: please remove all choirs from rock songs). Despite the schmaltz the whispered “I love you” right in the last seconds of the piece very touching, in the same way that it’s touching when a person backstabs you then says sorry. The members of Sick City have solid experience placing hooks, and an obsession with murky atmosphere. This masks hammy wordplay about their juvenile prowess, making this just about the best rock CD you could ask for that doesn’t attempt to move outside its given genre at all.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sick-city-nightlife/