Leave it to a band of Canadians to create one of the most literate, catchy pop records of the year. Dust of your hippest pair of reading glasses and most vintage pair of dancing shoes; you'll need them both.
Let me go ahead and create an abridged list of Novillero's influences before I get too far into the review. It'll save us time later. They sound like/are similar to/have been influenced by the following: XTC, Elvis Costello, Chicago, Teenage Fanclub, Billy Joel, the Beatles, the Who, etc. In an Arcade Fire Funeral-tinged moved, they even end their album with a female lead singer after 11 tracks of guy vocals. So Aim Right for the Holes in their Lives must be horrendous, right? Billy Joel!? Chicago!!? Piano!!!? Horns!!!!? Sometimes bratty vocals!!!!!? Actually the elements come together quite nicely. Maybe it's the socialism and health care system coupled with the frigid temperatures, but the Canadians (these guys and the New Pornographers are all the evidence you need, really) have been churning out the most refreshing pop music in the world.
Pop-rock music rarely weaves its namesake styles effectively. Pop music overrides rock music most often and turns it into a wimpy mush. Or bands are too concerned with rocking out and they forget the importance of hooks and wit. Novillero don't have that problem. The hooks are plentiful, the arrangements are varied, the melodies are memorable and immediate, and the horns are tastefully implemented.
Quite refreshingly, the lyrics are excellent. "Laissez-Faire System" could be the first song to make me nostalgic for Mr. McCann's high school Free Enterprise course and his Adam Smith lectures. Lead singer Rod Slaughter laments: "The laissez-faire system is not quite working out". Later he wittily poses no solution: "My ass is quite used to sitting on fences". In "The Hypothesist", the namesake character is misunderstood: "People would often call him paranoid / He'd say 'cautious is a better word'". Grant Johnson, who sings and wrote the lyrics for two tracks, is equally capable of throwing together some excellent phrases: "Knocked a pane of glass out of my front window / That broke against the ground two stories below / To return to sand again". Most rock stars probably don't even know that glass is made of sand. Aim closes with a duet in which Slaughter and guest female vocalist Keri McTighe discuss their broken relationship in terms of a car ride: "Restless in mind, static in form / Creating things we can hold onto / Despite some infractions I might have made / I care for you". Tragically, they don't want the ride to end because they know they'll be forced to confront their problem. Instead, they decide they should pull over so they never have to return home. It feels as if I'm analyzing a short story, and that's a compliment.
Even more refreshing than good lyrics is the fact that the music is good, too. The album opens with a quartet of nearly flawless songs showcasing the band's wide variety of sound-alikes. Aim moves from jittery rock-pop, to piano-based pop-rock (complete with a hushed chorus you can snap along to), to AM radio power pop, to straight ahead pop music with Chicago-style horn fills. The reason that the opening tracks are so amazing is the variety among the songs, in addition to the variety of the sounds within them. They are all pop-based, but the instrumentation within the songs' sections keeps the tunes continually surprising.
Outside of the first four songs, the title track is the most oddly appealing. When compared to the bulk of the album, it's less straightforward and less instantaneous, but its oddness is part of the allure. "Aptitude" is simply another excellent song. "Let's Pull Over Here" is the biggest departure for the band sonically, and one of its most beautiful songs. McTighe allows her gentle voice to carry the pain and heartbreak of the lyrics as the melody peaks softly with a confession/revelation.
With so many highlights, it remains difficult to criticize the more mediocre tracks because they would sound amazing on other releases when sandwiched between other mediocre tracks. An album rich with perfection can have a minor slip-up every once and a while. In this case, I suppose I can excuse those instances.