July Talk is a band steeped in duality. They mine the classic binary touchstones — good and evil, sacred and profane, life and death — but do so in a way that feels novel rather than kitschy and prosaic. This is largely because of their commitment and their thorough methodology. Visually, for instance, they uniformly present themselves via photos and videos in stark black and white. When it comes to their music, it’s a roiling tug-of-war between primeval, swamp blues and hook-laden pop. Picture a Deep South terrain, torrid and humid, covered with gnarled trees, and Spanish moss. Yet to keep the ominous mood from being oppressive, fireflies sporadically flare up, sparking light in even in the heaviest gloom. That’s an approximation of the Canadian quintet’s modus operandi, a clamorous bedrock of sultry grooves, monolithic stomps, and the fiery sexual dynamism between vocalists Leah Fay Goldstein and Peter Dreimanis.
Their tension is a microcosm of feminine-masculine interplay, building up typical gender roles just to subvert them. At the very least, their interactions play with audiences’ cultural expectations of gender paradigms. Dreimanis’ serrated bark cleaves against Goldstein’s initially delicate twee, this dichotomy often lulling you into a preconception of masculine dominance. Bursting from this ruse is Dreimanis’ ogre persona having the tables turned by what was misconceived as Goldstein’s distressed damsel. The predator and prey roles are swapped, then at times united, like two miscreants going on a crime spree. Dreimanis’ shotgun blast is paired, rather than at odds, with Goldstein’s stiletto.
With sophomore album Touch, the duo refines their interaction, creating a more fluid and compelling vibe than on their eponymous debut. Rather than demarcated vocal duties, Dreimanis and Goldstein take less conventional routes of bleeding their voices together, trading off words in single lines instead of complete verses. Both voices display more range here than on the preceding record, with Dreimanis exercising more restraint in softer moments and Goldstein pushing to her higher register. Goldstein in particular is more forceful, her voice regularly transitioning from siren cooing behind Dreimanis to dominating it with banshee wails. On opener “Picturing Love”, for instance, Dreimanis’ barbaric yawping is punctuated with Goldstein’s declarations in call-and-response fashion. The song sets the tone early that Goldstein’s characters are not submissive to Dreimanis’. He sings, “In the screen I see a woman / dancing to my expectations / a tired fantasy” before she retorts “Isn’t this what you wanted? / am I turning you on yet?” amid brutal percussion. The band’s running commentary on tearing down assumptions of dominance and fragility is palpable, yet subtle.
With “Beck + Call”, shuffling drums and guesting throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s rhythmic contributions serve as a tumultuous foundation. Over top, the two vocalists chant “(S)He loves me/ (S)He loves me not” with increasing mania. Later, “Lola + Joseph” deals with a liquor store seduction, Goldstein’s character taking the role of aggressor as Dreimanis plays a virginal novice enveloped in her web. “Joseph, you can look / but don’t you touch / when I want your hands on my skin / I’ll ask”, Goldstein sings, her denial amping Dreimanis’ frustration as evidenced by his desperate belting “Lola! / I wanna know ya!”
The vocalists’ dynamic interplay understandably draws much of the listener’s attention, but their narratives of foreplay, withdrawal, and consummation would fall flat if not for the music supporting them. It’s as rough and tumble as it gets, with bassist Josh Warburton’s consistently throbbing low end, drummer Danny Miles’ chaotic drums, and Dreimanis and Ian Docherty’s jagged guitars cutting in sideways, blending elements of gritty blues with post-punk. On “So Sorry”, the instrumentation coalesces deftly to create the urgency of taking a corner on two wheels, like the soundtrack to a bank robbery getaway. They largely stay true to their trademark sound, with occasional flourishes into new stylistic territory. On the single “Push + Pull”, a dark disco beat reigns beneath the clamor, while “Lola + Joseph” is supported by surges of brass. Frequent start-stop dynamics keep the thudding intensity going strong. Arguably the album’s standout moment is “Strange Habit”, with the twinkle of a ghostly piano and a pulsing beat pushing it toward an ominous end, heat rising from the notes. It’s the soberest moment of the record, the refrains expansive while the vocalists are at their most subdued. It’s at their quietest that they are particularly arresting, conveying the greatest amount of pathos as Dreimanis softly intones, “For all the wrong reasons / for all the wrong reasons”, to which Goldstein coos, “Show up at your door / clothes fall to the floor.” A forbidden relationship neither party can quit despite the noxiousness of it is beautifully depicted, largely free from the raucousness of the rest of the album.
The record takes a minor deviation in theme with “Jesus Said So”, a slice of social commentary satirizing right-wing hypocrisy. Comparatively down-tempo to draw more focus on the lyrical content, scratchy guitars scrape beneath the whispered reflections from Dreimanis on first-world consumerism and superficiality. In the refrain, the drums come in metronomically beneath Goldstein’s lilting voice, serving as an oasis of sorts from the dour religious and nationalist rationalizations. With a jittery guitar, the tune seamlessly segues into the finale “Touch”, by far the most cinematic of the collection. Starting with sparse piano and alternating lines from the singers, it creeps forward slowly like thunderheads approaching on the horizon. As the rhythm surges it builds exponentially, sprawling with an inverted gospel choir joining Dreimanis and Goldstein in their feral yowling of what could essentially be the record’s mission statement: “We get so tired and lonely / we need a human touch”.
Touch finds July Talk cultivating and improving upon what made them so engaging on their debut. Rather than going the easy route of replicating their initial successes, they push themselves and expand. Their signature sound and integrity is maintained, while new touches are added as needed. It’s a fantastic follow-up and is an example, in this cynical era of playlists, of how bands can still craft fully realized, comprehensive albums while still developing as artists and not being afraid to make sociological statements.