Back in April of 2003, when Montreal indie stalwarts The Dears released their second album, No Cities Left, the Canadian music press fell over themselves in ecstatic rapture, whipping themselves into a wild, hyperbolic frenzy, hailing the record as an instant classic, something you'd normally expect from the British media, not a bunch of humble Canadians. A respected band among their Canadian indie rock peers, The Dears have been name-checked many times; most recently, both Metric and Canadian sensation Sam Roberts have gone on national television, and plugged their hard-working friends. Despite the critical praise, despite the respect from fellow musicians, commercial success evaded the band during a year that many had hoped would be theirs. National music channels Much Music and Much More Music did little to give the band mainstream exposure, and commercial radio, as they always do north of the border, continued to turn a blind eye to Canada's exploding indie rock scene. Instead, The Dears have been left to toil away, penniless and in anonymity, hoping that their next record will be the one that breaks them.
All hope is not lost, however, as No Cities Left is getting a much needed push down south, as the album is finally being released in America, thanks to spinART records. First off, it must be made known that the wild, over the top praise the album received in Canada was fueled by a heavy dose of native pride by writers eager to plug a talented band. That said, No Cities Left is a very good album, just not quite the timeless classic some would lead you to believe.
Upon hearing the Anglophilic affectations of singer Murray A. Lightburn, a skeptic would probably immediately blow off The Dears as being little more than a collection of Britpop imitators who, while pulling it off convincingly, are a decade too late. And sure, Lightburn's vocals are very reminiscent of both Morrissey and Blur's Damon Albarn, and in fact, the resemblance is absolutely uncanny at times, but it's Lightburn's songwriting, and the skill of the band behind him, that really set the band apart from just simple Smiths/Blur mimicking. If you delve deeper into No Cities Left, you'll hear a surprisingly deep, resonant tone to the band's performance, as the four members (update: they're now a sextet) draw from a rich palette of musical influences. You hear the lush chamber pop and chanson sound of French legend Serge Gainsbourg, the dark lyrical wit of both Morrissey and Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, the droning art rock of Spirtualized and Radiohead, a bit of noise-drenched Krautrock, and yeah, that classic Britpop feel, derived from both the Kinks and the Beatles.
Based on that loose description, it would seem that No Cities Left is a big ol' stylistic mess of a record, but over the course of a little more than an hour, it's a surprisingly consistent listen, as the songs ebb and flow effortlessly, between mellow, contemplative compositions, and excursions into more aggressive, distorted tones. "Take me for a drive to the coastline/Pull me to the depths of the sea," sings Lightburn on the brilliant single "Lost in the Plot", adding wryly, "Leave me in the middle of the ocean/I can walk the rest of the way." The lyrical melodrama is very heavy on this album, but with such lovely orchestration and passionate singing, what else would you expect? "Lost in the Plot" is a gem, an anthem for the downtrodden. The closest thing to an upbeat-sounding track on the CD, the song builds to an emotional climax that has Lightburn emitting a gutwrenching wail of, "It's the same old plot to these things." In a year that has given us such insufferable British bores like Keane and Snow Patrol, this group of Canadians trump every whiny, post-Coldplay act out there today, and this song deserves to be heard.
Elsewhere, "Who Are You, Defenders of the Universe?" is a good, stylish piece of morose guitar rock, while other songs dare to take things even further. "Pinned Together, Falling Apart" opens with a cacophonous burst of guitar noise before settling down into a highly theatrical piece of paranoiac Pink Floyd balladry, while "Never Destroy Us" is just the opposite, beginning as a lush, slickly crafted '60s French pop, and exploding at the end with screaming guitars and Lightburn's wracked screams; the overall effect is like a sunny drive on the Mediterranean coast only to end by driving off a cliff. "The Second Part" is a terrific acoustic ballad that has Lightburn musing facetiously, "Our tongues may have touched/ But all I remember was your nose/ And I supposed/ Our eyes were closed." The album's best moment might just be the nearly eight minute epic "Expect the Worst/ 'Cos She's a Tourist", as the band goes off on various musical tangents that border on progressive rock, veering from string-based chamber pop verses, to a brief, mad, piano-driven shuffle, to a majestic, spaced out coda, which has Lightburn declaring, "Maybe I'll die... don't hold me back."
If No Cities Left has a fault, it's that it goes on a bit too long, as the album's latter half tends to drag (a song as great as "Lost in the Plot" early on will do that), but the band should get some credit for trimming some excess fat off the American version of their album. The sprightly "Don't Lose the Faith" has been sacrificed, and wisely so, as it was the weakest track on the Canadian version, the resemblance to The Smiths simply too obvious for comfort. Fans of the band might bristle at the thought of such a song being left off, but its exclusion makes the album much better overall. As The Dears close in on their tenth year as a band, their tireless efforts might not have paid off yet, but if No Cities Left is given a second chance, in both the States and their home country, then success will merely be an inevitability. A nation's worth of writers and indie fans continue to have their collective fingers crossed.