[3 December 2008]
About a year and a half ago, Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell was forced to go it alone at a gig in Vancouver. It seems bassist Chris McCarron and drummer Eric Thibodeau were detained from re-entering Canada for reasons Powell wouldn’t fully explain. Leaving aside the question of what they would have had to have on their records (or their person) to have trouble getting back into Canada, the fact that Powell’s solo show still managed to be the highlight of the night speaks both to her considerable talents and how superfluous the rest of the band really is to Land of Talk’s hazy charm. (Of course, the band’s constantly rotating roster is also some indication: the Slip’s Andrew Barr steps in for Thibodeau on Some Are Lakes, the band’s finally released followup to the acclaimed 2007 EP Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, recorded by indie It-boy Justin Vernon/Bon Iver.)
Which isn’t to say that the rhythm section isn’t solid: the players are eminently capable, really, particularly when they start whirling into a frenzy, their centrifugal cohesion the only thing keeping them from a sonic breakdown that would scatter them across the map. That kind of near-destructive tendency comes through best on “Give Me Back My Heart Attack” and “Corner Phone”, two of the only tracks that rise much above typical indie rock stalwartness. But Land of Talk is really only as alive as Powell, with her distorted melodies and caged-bird vocals, makes it—and even then the band, guitar included, seems to be playing catch-up with its singer/lyricist an awful lot.
That’s as apparent as anywhere on the title track. Powell’s lyrics are teenage melodrama, built around the crushing centre, “I’ll love you like I love you, then I’ll die”, and her voice is mush-mouthed melancholy, either aware of the fleeting nature of summer romance or looking back on it longingly. The music behind her, though, portrays precisely none of this dynamism, unobtrusive background back beat even when they start to pick it up towards the end. What could have soared instead only glides, Powell’s emotion failing to echo into the band’s playing.
A similar disconnect happens on “Got a Call”, one of Powell’s more openly damaged moments. A call from an ex-boyfriend sets off a spate of self-loathing, and her half-hearted claim that “you can’t keep down the girl who loves music” is quickly undercut by the admission that “the most beauty [she’s] seen / lives in a dream” and a confession that it always feels like it’s raining. Again, this is melodrama, but Powell lends a vulnerable honesty to it all, the pained lilt of someone who’s spent some time staring at storm clouds. The music is rote, though, put together efficiently but emotionlessly, almost like they’re not listening to what’s being said.
Not that they’re always at odds: unsurprisingly, some of the album’s best moments come when they finally connect. On “The Man Who Breaks Things (Dark Shuffle)” Barr finds just the right driving stomp, and his flourishing cymbals and rapid fire snares play with Powell’s brisk, forward guitar, giving catchy life to a sweetly sung kiss-off. Later, music and lyrics manage their collaborative peak, if not necessarily the album’s, on “Young Bridge”: the band manages its space perfectly, crashing through the chorus and toning it down for the verses, bringing to sonic life Powell’s conflicted look back at a bad relationship. By the time Powell makes her mind up, McCarron and Barr provide the crashing anger her voice only suggest, driving the song while she sort of bitterly coos “There’s no light underneath you”.
Still, things are often for the best when they music just gets out of Powell’s way. The album’s highlight, “It’s Okay”, is a torch song with little more than her hazy heartbreak backed by a toned-down beat. Any sense that the title is sincere is removed when Powell starts sweetly moaning about “maybe when [she] dies”, and by the end her loneliness almost threatens to choke her, so barely is she able to get out the unfortunate declaration of love that is “your voice becomes my home”. A similar simplicity infects closer “Troubled”, a downbeat but ultimately optimistic little tune that lives on little more than Powell’s strumming and occasional dips into French.
Though the album works overall, considering how much she dominates it—to say nothing of the constant roster changes and some recent singular success in the form of joining Broken Social Scene—you have to wonder if Powell wouldn’t be better off on her own. Like fellow Scenester Feist, she could benefit greatly from something that focuses exclusively on her myriad talents. For now, they’re the best part of a generally good thing, but I have a nagging feeling that they could be used better.