Halifax’s Wintersleep is a band that seemingly doesn’t exactly have a super-high profile in their home country of Canada. Though they are distributed through a major label (Capitol/EMI), you generally don’t hear people talking about them in the same way you would a Metric, an Arcade Fire or a Broken Social Scene. (Which is odd, considering that 2010’s New Inheritors did go to No. 12 on the Canadian Albums Chart.) Well, they’re five albums deep into their career with their new Hello Hum, and the band has, in fact, had its share of time in the limelight. Since forming in 2001, they’ve gone on to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman in recent years. Two of Wintersleep’s members play in Holy Fuck (a Canadian band you actually might have heard of, if only for the ensuing controversy over the band’s name), and their song “Weighty Ghost” was named one of the Top 100 Canadian Singles of all time by journalist Bob Mersereau. The band won a Juno award in 2008 for New Group of the Year, even though they’d been around for seven years by that point.
So, clearly, Wintersleep has had a level of impact to some degree. It’s just that they’ve somehow flown under the radar – at least, if not in the popular Canadian consciousness, then in my case. I’d never heard of them. That is, until I started getting notes from publicists about the new album noting that Hello Hum was co-produced by none other than Dave Fridmann (!), who has twiddled the knobs for the likes of MGMT and the Flaming Lips, and Tony Doogan, who has worked with the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai. That, my friends, got my attention.
If you had to summarize the sound of Hello Hum, imagine if Broken Social Scene wound up getting fused at the hip of the New Pornographers. The album is decidedly a very panoramic indie rock affair with a touch of electronica elements just to jazz things up. Indeed, vocalist Paul Murphy even sounds like a cross between Kevin Drew and Carl Newman. Hello Hum is kind of like what you’d get if the very best elements of Canadian indie rock were thrown into a salad bowl and mixed up. Wintersleep even share the Broken Social Scene trademark of delving into the blatantly sexual (as BSS does on “Lover’s Spit”), with the track “Zones”, which boasts the double entendre lyric, “I love you … why can’t you be in my arms today? / My arms today? / Call out until I come.” And, definitely, you can clearly hear Fridmann’s touch all over this record, from the spacey psychedelic sounds (along with a melodramatic Mellotron) of “Permanent Sigh” to the pinging and ponging of a devious keyboard chord on opening track “Hum”.
However, Hello Hum is the sound of a band honing their sound and refining it. While there might be the obvious touchpoints alluded to above, there are moments – such as during the boisterous chorus of the anthemic “Unzipper” – where the band clearly transcends its influences and sound remarkably like their own entity. There aren’t too many Canadian bands making a sound this big outside of the likes of, yes, Broken Social Scene or even Arcade Fire. That makes Hello Hum a delight to listen to: there’s a lot going on here, and when the band is firing on all cylinders to make something clearly rock-based, they more than admirably succeed.
Where the band is a little less successful, however, is in the moments where they’re not firing up the cylinders. The ballads are a little on the bland and unnoteworthy side. Sadly, most of these songs wind up in the last quarter of the record, creating something of a bit of a buzz kill from all of the momentum that preceded it. “Someone, Somewhere”, in particular, is so by-the-numbers, Fridmann (I would assume) tried to suss it up a bit by inserting squiggly keyboard noises throughout the runtime of the track, which makes it hard to sit through with a straight face. “Zones” is a bit of a mid-tempo number that tries to be grandiose, but comes off as a touch plain and mainstream rock-ish – and it just cuts off and ends, as though the group was unsure where exactly they were driving with it. And “Smoke”, which rounds out the record, is passable but it lingers well beyond its expiry date for six excruciating minutes. However, it’s what comes before all this that cements Hello Hum as a top tier album. From the pulsing opener “Hum”, with its cavernous, pounding drums, to the jaunty “In Came the Flood” to the almost twee-esque “Nothing is Anything (Without You)” to the calypso feel of “Resuscitate”, the album is top filled with great songs that should become Cancon classics.
So while Hello Hum kind of lags towards its ending, the album does have its lion’s share of great, memorable cuts, bolstered by the stellar production which gives the album both a pop and experimental sheen. Hello Hum is a disc that you might find yourself reaching toward on occasion for a great indie pop fix, and there are a bevy of songs that are certainly mix-tape worthy. One does wish that the album were more of a cohesive statement, and didn’t quite stumble on the ballads – but perhaps the band will become aware of this sore spot, and give us a sixth album that’s just wall-to-wall rockers full of keyboard blips and punishing guitars. All in all, though, Hello Hum is a more than worthy introduction to a band for those of us who have somehow skated through the Canadian music landscape and not stumbled over the rock these guys were hiding under. Wintersleep may not have a certain amount of brand name recognition of other bands out there toiling the indie circuit, which may seem odd considering they’re on a major label and all, but Hello Hum should do more than rectify that. Hello Hum is a pretty darn good pop album, and one that should bring Wintersleep out of mass market popularity hibernation and into the vaunted big leagues of Canadian rock.