[20 August 2008]
On their third album, Montreal’s the Stills sound supremely confident. Polished by slickly professional production, their songs are just the right length and build into effective (if predictable) crescendos from jittery, propulsive verses. They incorporate small, inventive sounds at the periphery of the sound, which lends the otherwise dense texture a certain light-footedness (check out the clapping percussive effect on “Snakecharming the Masses”). And their command of the texture of the alternate rock song is beyond reproach. Over the top of it all, the two vocalists Tim Fletcher and Dave Hamelin (who’s also the main songwriter) broadcast smooth, Chris Martin-esque lines. It combines to create a picture of a band that’s super competent, whose craft is truly impressive – but who still somehow fails to really impress.
The trouble is, the Stills don’t really stand out, now, from the hordes of similar artists who trade in bombastic but melodic rock. And “triumphant”, you know, has been done in a more memorable way by another Montreal band recently (you might be able to guess which one). Nevertheless, the Stills have shown us before they can do this almost perfectly. “Still in Love Song” was perhaps the best example of this band doing what it does to perfection. A simple vamp with a chorus that’s essentially just one note, it still managed to build an overwhelming atmosphere through layering guitars and sloppy cymbal-laden drums.
The band kicks their third album to a pointed start with the highlight track “Don’t Talk Down”, which may be a little (but only a little) less frenetic than the band’s earlier work. There’s no real sense of the group mellowing with age, though. Eight years in, and they’re still most comfortable with the overdriven, upbeat “triumph rock” thing. Tracks like “Snakecharming the Masses” are textbook indie rock – just enough inventiveness in the timbre to be slightly off-kilter, but mainstream enough to lock into place in time for the rather conventional chorus.
Over the course of the album, the band’s tropes become more familiar: roiling instrumentals with stretched out vocal lines, energetic 4/4 percussion and occasionally, manufactured climaxes (a song called “Panic” repeats the word “panic” in the chorus, surprise). One chorus consists of a simple major scale, ascending. At these times the Stills are in real danger of becoming so involved in the textures and ambiences they create that they actually lose much of the hoped-for emotional impact.
In fact, it’s when the group focuses on simply laying out their mainstream-baiting melodies in a straightforward manner that they are most successful and, turns out, most genuine. “Everything I Build” actually sounds a bit like a Bob Dylan song; the postponement of an expected exploding timbre (which, in fact, never comes) becomes the hook with which this simple 4/4 song holds the listener. “Everything I build is breaking down,” the vocals repeat, when in fact this song is building up to the kind of phrase sticks firmly in your head for hours. Same goes for “I’m With You”, which is a bit too Coldplay for its own good but is still pretty effective pop.
In the end Oceans Will Rise strikes the listener as solid, appropriate, but not really that exciting. There are a few genuinely thrilling moments here, sure; but sitting through the rest of the album may be something for dedicated fans only, at this point.