Most people don't know the Most Serene Republic, but even those who do may have missed this 2006 EP -- quite possibly their most coherent and spellbinding statement.
They have a ridiculous band name, awkward Canadian teenage roots, a flaming red-haired vocalist who pulls double-duties on trombone, and a hell of backstory—(back in the early 2000s indie music boom, label Arts & Crafts signed the band after a simple e-mail and perusal of their Myspace page). The first non-Broken Social Scene-affiliated signee to the label, the Most Serene Republic issued their first musical statement in the form of 2005's Death Cab-with-ADD-whirlwind, Underwater Cinematographer.
On that album, the band hurtles its way through indie clichés (group handclaps here, ridiculously long song titles there, bookend instrumental tracks titled “Prologue” and “Epilogue”) like they were levels in some geeky video game. On Cinematographer's best tracks, the group rides stylistic cacophony to euphoria -- “Content Was Always My Favorite Colour” moves from ambient synths and electronics to a massively claustrophobic layer of handclaps and vocal overdubs, while “The Protagonist Suddenly Realizes What He Must Do in the Middle of Downtown Traffic” is nearly as cathartic as its title implies, showcasing keyboardist/producer Ryan Lenssen's classically trained piano playing and the then purely nasal whine of vocalist/trombonist/lyricist Adrian Jewett.
Ultimately, Underwater Cinematographer wasn't an album to hang your coat on. The reason it managed to strike such a resounding chord was because it implied a great deal of potential. The album sounds like the culture it was created from: it is the sound of barely twenty-somethings absorbing the tricks of the trade, riding high on a wave of timing, luck, and positive creative energy. It was clumsy, heartfelt, a tad confusing, and a lot of fun -- a lot like adolescence.
2006's stop-gap tour EP Phages is the sound of post-grad angst and wonderment: defiance in the face of oppression; resilience in the face of conformity. From the outset, things are decidedly different. Opener “Emergency Performance Art Piece” begins with a delicate piano melody seemingly recorded at a teenage piano recital but soon explodes with prog-like fury, unleashing a torrent of thunderous bass and drums, delivering a wave of visceral collective power and release only previously hinted at.
And as powerful as that instrumental opener is, it's only a preview of what comes next. If “Emergency” nudged its way toward prog, “You're Not an Astronaut” basically solidified their stance as the torch-carriers of some mutant indie-prog beast. Drummer Adam Nimmo plays himself into a frenzy, extracting percussive revenge on his kit as if it were a former elementary school bully. Jewett's distorted vocals exert a newfound confidence, basking in the crevices of the time signature, battling for space with Nick Greave's E-bowed guitars. It's a shocking contrast to his vocal style on Cinematographer -- once hiding his vocal limitations with genre characterizations and goofball charm, here he embraces his inner Peter Gabriel, playing with vocal phrases, singing in a fuller tenor, reaching art rock ecstasy through serving the moods of the songs.
“Shopping Cart People” showcases new vocalist Emma Ditchburn, who, throughout much of the EP, shares co-lead vocals with Jewett, balancing his artsy mood explorations with prettier, more grounded and accessible harmonies and asides. They achieve vocal communion on “Jazz Ordinaire”, a beautiful track outfitted with Jewett's trombone and snare-heavy drumming over a wild 5/4 time signature. Toward the song's conclusion, Ditchburn pleads “To me you'll be a legendary truth” over the band's frenetic stomp, managing to reach vocal euphoria all on her own.
The EP's finest moment comes toward the end: “Anhoi Polloi” opens with violins scratching into tune over jazzy drums and a huge guitar progression. We get some of Jewett's most fascinatingly inexplicable lyrics (“We fuck like tides while Father City smokes up Mother Countryside / Leaves her giggling leaves”) and one of their most gorgeous musical compositions.
The combination of Jewett's lyrical absurdity and the band's zeal for progressive relentlessness may leave some listeners frustrated, but those looking for a challenge (both lyrically and instrumentally) will find Phages to be worth more than just a disposable piece in their constantly shifting iPod puzzles.
Since Phages, the band has produced two full-length LPs, 2007's sonic clusterfuck Population and the more user-friendly, less experimental version of their sound with ...And the Ever Expanding Universe, released in 2009. Those two albums take the band's music to new, exciting places, cementing their status as one of the most unique and adventurous bands in the indie music universe. Still, though, many fans (including myself) find themselves drawn most faithfully and consistently to Phages, the underdog EP most people will tragically never hear.
This isn't the easiest music you'll hear—but it's also more intricate, rewarding, and repeatable than most else. They may have a hard time nudging their way inside, but once you let them into your world, The Most Serene Republic make music that's difficult to shake off with your headphones.