Gentleman Reg makes his introduction to the world beyond Canada with two releases, a past-works compilation and his new album proper -- a work that finally displays real maturity.
The stage name of singer-songwriter Reg Vermue, Gentleman Reg, could not have been chosen more appropriately. Over the course of his first three albums, Reg made tuneful folk-pop of the most polite, unobtrusive variety. Stately in the popular mode of post-millennial indie-rock's fixation with ornate arrangements and acute professionalism, but lacking in the grand orchestral drama of genre stalwarts Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens, Reg's most distinctive feature may be his fey, slightly off-key vocal style. Careening over his soft melodies and keeping his songs forever light and airy, much of Reg's output up until this point has always felt a little too unsure of itself in its willingness to cater to his singing, keeping the music and the melodies a little too easygoing as if in fear of overwhelming their performer. It suggested a lack of self-confidence that often treats his voice as a liability rather than a particular unique and fragile instrument, threatening to limit his work from a wider range of style and scope.
Obviously talented and notably well connected, Reg did valuable time as an occasional member of eccentric outfit the Hidden Cameras while recording his first three solo discs for the now-defunct Canadian label Three Gut Records, before finally signing to indie rock superstar label Arts & Crafts (home to Broken Social Scene and its immense string of offshoots) last year. Little Buildings is the label's sampler of his earlier work, which had remained largely undistributed outside of Canada, in anticipation of their release of his first A&C recording, Jet Black. Pulling three songs from 2002's Make Me Pretty and five from 2004's Darby & Joan, while ignoring his 2000 debut The Theoretical Girl entirely (though adding the previously unreleased track "Something to Live For"), feels well programmed in order to highlight his strengths.
The Darby & Joan tracks "Bundle", "The Boyfriend Song", and "It's Not Safe" (also featured on the Shortbus soundtrack) in particular showcase three of his strongest melodic compositions, backing him up with sturdy power-pop arrangements that allowed him to strive towards a greater musical reach. The rest of what is collected here tends more towards highlighting his restraint and tendency towards mainstream folk-rock leanings (both his tasteful instrumentation and the slight helium tinge to his voice at times suggest a Canadian indie-pop John Mayer) without ever really letting the momentum stall much over the course of the compilation's somewhat less-than-generous nine-song, 33-minute running time.
Still, it is not only the brevity of this disc that makes it suspect as a compilation, but also the imbalance in the representation of his output. In highlighting nearly half of Darby & Joan while short-changing the admittedly less interesting Make Me Pretty material (not to mention not letting anything from The Theoretical Girl have a say), it's a wonder why Arts & Crafts didn't just go ahead and reissue Darby & Joan instead. If the goal is to provide context, Little Buildings is an awkward and incomplete portrait. As an inadvertent charting of Reg's artistic development in the form of a random snapshot, though, the disc may end up serving the label's purposes after all. If Darby & Joan signified a few notable steps forward, Jet Black is a sizable leap. Perhaps the blessing-in-disguise of an imposed five-year gap in recording allowed him to the time to flesh out his composition to their fullest potential, but if Jet Black proves anything, it's that Arts & Crafts nabbed him at exactly the right time.
The most welcome development on Jet Black, the one most clearly indicative of a refreshing confidence in his material, lies in the album's notably more full-bodied sonic palette. Perhaps it's an exaggeration to call the arrangements here more muscular than on Reg's previous outings, but there is nevertheless a greater emphasis on musical force and a willingness to take cues from a diversity of stylistic influences that brings the songs fully to life. Opener "Coastlines" and the swaggery "You Can't Get It Back" are backed by tight, garage-y guitar squalls and, in the case of the former, a saloon piano straight out of Exile on Main Street. The ominous keyboards and tinny, sprung-rhythm percussion on "Everlong" reveals it as a near-exact replica of Aimee Mann's "Frankenstein", while "How We Exit"'s "ah-ah-ah-ahh-ahh" vocal stutters are pure skinny tie New Wave. Most unexpected, though, is the oddly anachronistic "We're in a Thunderstorm", a pulsating dance track that's halfway between an early '80s club remix and something off of the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. Precisely the sort of thing that would have been a sore thumb on a lesser album, here it feels like another exhibit in Reg's encouraging willingness to experiment.
Even more encouraging is that, vocally, Reg at last sounds up to the challenge of the musical variety displayed on this album. Finally, too, his lower-key material feels fresher here almost simply by virtue of standing alongside a greater musical assortment. Where in the past his ballads tended to drift off into the well-worn territory of a typical sensitive songwriter with an acoustic guitar, most of the quieter material here has a greater depth than it has had in the past. The swaying "To Some It Comes Easy" marries a country sigh to a lightly throbbing bass and builds to an instantly memorable and wholly poignant chorus that never loses the song's subtle composure. The achingly lovely "Rewind", a duet with the Organ’s Katie Sketch, is even quieter, but builds to a stunning intensity as it makes its way towards the heartbreaking refrain of "There's no point in going back / When a masterpiece is crumbling".
If Jet Black does not quite feel like a great album, in the end it does feel like a revelatory one. It is the sound of an artist coming into his own, casting aside previously perceived limitations and finally delivering a fully realized work. Still a perfect gentleman, Reg Vermue has finally done well by forgetting his manners just a little bit.