[7 December 2008]
On the cover of their Mint Records debut Canadian Tuxedo, the ladies of Vancougar lean stiffly against the large trunk of a tree in a park. Prodded into the realm of black and white, they become indistinct rather than sharpened. The chosen arboreal setting clashes with the denim fashion aesthetic of a committed all-girl garage-rock band. The font is a rough stitch of golden thread, something out of an inner-band sewing circle. It’s an odd cover, either a gaudy failure or a DIY triumph.
Of course, within the delineated limits of indie garage-rock, there’s hardly a difference between those two supposed extremes. The more ragged, frantic, and thrown-together the product, the better it is. Call it the Gospel According to Woolly Bully. Vancougar, evidently, paid rapt attention in Sunday school. Their melodies and harmonies are precisely, enthusiastically off-tune. The abandon of their power-trio chording is aptly reckless, and the keyboards swell with just the right retro fuzz. Plenty of the song-crafting trademarks of label-mates and fellow Vancouverites the New Pornographers are also borrowed liberally, particularly in the record’s late stages with “Lonely Life” and “Let It Go” (which ends with an a capella medieval-folk coda, one of the record’s rare striking moments).
The subject matter is ensconced in the standard-issue romantic entanglements. Either it’s nasty break-ups, as in the overly-parenthetical “(I Hope Your) Money (Keeps You Warm)” (“Baby / you can go to hell”), or it’s the giggly, naive certainty of “Obvious” (which has one endlessly-repeated line: “It’s obvious to me / that we were meant to be / in love”). There’s a brief mid-record attempt at social commentary attempted with “Vanity” (in case you hadn’t realized, “it’s insanity”) and “Every Car” (it sucks to drive in Vancouver, I guess), but the observations cut to the depth of an Avril Lavigne lyric even at their best.
It’s not necessarily all bad news. “Philadelphia” is a pretty accomplished bit of superficial, forgettable power-pop, and that’s certainly not worth nothing. Lead singer Eden Fineday may well have a relationship with vocal tuning as fraught as her relationship with some of the exes she sings about, as the grating faux-soul-R&B ad-libs in the last throes of that song with too many parentheses in the title proves out. But she can summon more than a measure primal riot-grrl power from some well of fem-rock instinct inside as well, as she does in mostly-successful album-closer “Distance”. It’s hard to say that the chops aren’t there, but after a certain point, are chops really enough?
It’s easy enough to dismiss the hooky garage-rock of a band like Vancougar as an insubstantial distraction of a genre, and I’m basically doing that here. It’s fun stuff at its best and it has its place, to be sure. The hole-in-the-wall bars of the world would be much less enjoyable haunts if their jukeboxes had nothing but Important Music in them; not everybody can be Radiohead or the Arcade Fire and I doubt anyone would seriously want to listen to ponderous art-rock at all times (except possibly Pink Floyd fanatics). But it doesn’t follow from these truths that a complete immersion in frivolous indie hooks becomes an acceptable alternative. The best find a balance, ultimately. Vancougar want to be one of the best, but far too often, they can’t see the forest for the trees.