A Northern Chorus' 2001 debut is an occasionally enthralling collection of dreamy space-rock atmospheres and plaintive alt-country melodies.
Space-rock? Shoegazing-country? Chamber pop? It's probably been called a few things, but this debut release from blissed-out Canadians A Northern Chorus is a frequently lovely and enthralling record. Originally put out back in 2001, and sounding not unlike Spiritualized if Jason Pierce ditched the orchestra and developed a serious alt-country fixation, Before We All Go to Pieces is an assured debut that occasionally draws you into its gently unfurling, dim-lit, subtle shades. The songs here are neither dynamic nor are they particularly catchy, with the hooks mostly lying half-buried in the textures and rhythms of the music, but it is undoubtedly an album that rewards a bit of old-fashioned patience.
In these five second, I-Pod shuffle times of instant gratification and on-demand sugar-rushes, it's a commodity in short supply -- as if anyone has the time to sit and listen to an album all the way through between Celebrity Big Brother 6 and the American Idol Pre-teens special! Anyway, Before We All Go to Pieces probably wouldn't last very long on most people's random playlists before getting replaced with some in-yer-face three minute stomp-a-long, but that's not really a bad thing at all. Indeed, it's partly because everything on Before We All Go to Pieces seems so insolently out of fashion and out of time (even for 2001) that you're willing to forgive the band's occasional trips of indulgence and recurrence and allow the record the time it needs to unravel.
The album opens with "My Shaded Sun", a sparkling, slow-burning love song built around a typically plaintive melody. The barely-there vocals and shadowy violin ease the listener into a foggy groove the record never really breaks out of. "Clear the Air" mixes gently lapping strings and chorus-laden guitar into five minutes of shimmering fireside melancholy, and in these moments, Before We All Go to Pieces is undeniably beautiful. Even when the songs are slight, the dawdling starlit mood that drifts from the speakers is strangely intoxicating.
Of course, none of these sounds are particularly original, and in the field of post-rock ambience, the band clearly lacks either the by-the-balls thrills of Mogwai, or the sheer melody of a band like Sigur Ros -- but that's not really the point. The country touches that colour the songs add an extra note of interest to proceedings, and there are unquestionably enough pretty moments to be found here to encourage further listening. Notably, the gorgeous swaying instrumental coda that closes "Tales from the Big Top", and the few seconds halfway through "And Still She Sleeps" when the instruments hold their breath for a moment, leaving the lovely country harmonies out front before the brushed drums and guitars float back in to carry the song to the end. Best of all, the band's almost choral space-rock ambitions and grounded country roots are brought together in delightful harmony on "Let It Go", probably the strongest song here.
It's true that not everything on Before We All Go to Pieces is as successful, and even at just nine songs, there's a nagging feeling that the record is a touch overlong. Certainly, by the time we reach the old side two, things do start to sound overly familiar. The dreamy, snowy atmosphere is still there, but the songwriting on these later tracks is lagging and somewhat one dimensional.
As a debut album that has probably since been surpassed, though, Before We All Go to Pieces displays much promise and laudable ambition. Even when the songs don't really merit the 6 or 7 minutes they are afforded, there is still enough here to mark A Northern Chorus out as a band worth hearing. This isn't music to grab your attention or turn your world upside-down, but on these cold winter nights, Before We All Go to Pieces could well be the perfect soundtrack to a cosy night, wrapped up under the covers.