Nothing kicks off a run for the Polaris Music Prize like putting out your best album yet, and that is precisely what Mark Andrew of the Hamiltons did with his third full-length.
Everything happens for a reason. Sure, it is a cliché, but it also happens to be true. In early 2004, I was living halfway around the world in Edinburgh, Scotland. I planned on staying over for August, which is festival season there, a magical time of year when the population of the capital doubles and all kinds of happenings unfold.
On April 30, at a spring solstice festival, I took a stupid amount of magic mushrooms and left reality for several hours. When I regained sanity, I had no wallet or underwear, my cell phone was smashed, my pants were pissed, my face was bruised and scratched, my eye was filling with blood, and a few big chunks of my hair were falling out. As it turned out, I had done most of that myself, all but the beating that was provided by a local thug.
I scared the hell out of myself, and decided to go back home to Canada as soon as possible, back to the basement at my father's house. On August 2 of that same year, he died of a heart attack in his living room at the age of 53. I was the one who discovered his body. To this day, I am still dealing with the effects of that event.
On paper, a pessimist would look at all that and say that my life sucked. In a span of five months, I had my ass kicked while on heavy hallucinogens, and then my dad unexpectedly and prematurely kicked the bucket. However, if I was never beaten up just like I was, I would not have gone home early and spent those three months golfing, drinking, and hanging out with my old man. That is time I will never have the chance to repeat, and I could not be more thankful for it.
Similarly, the core of Mark Andrew Hamilton's third album Die Stadt Muzikanten was formed out of serendipitous events. His Austro-German grandparents met by chance on a road somewhere and fell instantly in love. They settled in Vienna, and had a daughter named Wiltraud shortly thereafter. When she was seven, they moved to Canada, and some years later, she gave birth to Mark.
Hamilton's Oma and Opa were a big part of his early life. They filled his belly with ethnic cooking unrecognizable to his classmates, and filled his head with European music. Their influence inspired the purchase of an accordion, Hamilton's first ever instrument. Sadly, his Oma died of cancer in 1984, when Mark was five, and his Opa passed away in 2002.
In 2006, Hamilton convinced his bosses at an advertising company to let him visit their Berlin office, partly because he couldn't stand his employers and partly because his band was going to tour at some point, so it was win-win. Once there, Hamilton was overcome with memories of his childhood, and specifically of his grandparents. He became fascinated with the idea of couples starting a new life in a foreign land, and with the unresolved legacy left behind when they go. Songs started flowing from his pen, songs that became his third full-length Die Stadt Muzikanten.
Die Stadt Muzikanten is Hamilton's best record yet. His indie folk orchestrations have never been more dynamic, his melodies more catchy, nor his production more rich. His songs are still quite wistful and endearing, but there is less of a sense of overt Belle & Sebastian style twee than was present on his first two albums. This record cements his own style, beyond mere comparison to the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Camera Obscura, and into the realm of having comparisons drawn to Woodpigeon.
Album highlight "Such A Lucky Girl" hits the perfect mix of somber and silver, personal and grandiose. Hamilton's introspective lyrics and soul-baring delivery rides the clarinet, acoustic guitar, drums, and flute instrumental like a rose floating down a mountain creek. Its string-laden crescendo evokes such a flood of emotions in me that I verge on bittersweet tears every time I hear it. "Morningside" is another such heartstring pluck, with prickly teased and sorrowfully strummed acoustic guitar joined by moments of accordion, strings, and shimmering effects supporting Hamilton's lyrics, double-tracked with female voice to help soften the blow.
Of course, there are plenty of less doleful tracks here. "My Denial In Argyle" fills a brisk tempo to the brim with righteous electric guitar riffs, pumping drums, a catchy chorus, and a little bit of church organ. That is the tune to get the hipsters up and dancing at the rock show. Also surely irresistible to those prone to head bobbing is the folksy "Enchantée Janvier", a bolstered by a stomping beat and honky-tonk piano.
Not all the songs on Die Stadt Muzikanten are specifically about his grandparents or Berlin, so ignorance of the story behind the album will definitely not inhibit anyone's enjoyment it in any way. However, without that connection between his grandparents and Berlin in Mark's life, this album would never have been made, at least not like this. Furthermore, if I never got a job at a record store in Edinburgh, one year after Mark's Opa passed away and a year before my father followed suit, I may have never heard of Woodpigeon. Certainly, my life would be lacking without Hamilton's music, and especially his latest, greatest opus. So thank you, Serendipity. Your methods may be vague, but you get results.