The latest album by one of Canada's most underrated bands artfully balances the familiar with the ambitious.
For all the accolades every Broken Social Scene member receives whenever they put out a new record on their own, John Crossingham's Raising the Fawn never seems to get its due. Despite having released five CDs, including two excellent discs in 2004's The North Sea and last year's The Maginot Line, those who flock to hear the latest from Feist, Metric, Stars, Jason Collett, Do Make Say Think, Apostle of Hustle, and Kevin Drew seem oblivious to Crossingham's own band. Whether it's the trio's unassuming nature, their somewhat lofty arrangements (which often extend close to the ten-minute mark in a live setting), the fact that they're not on a label as stylish as Arts & Crafts, or just crummy luck, Raising the Fawn continue to be perennial underdogs, not only in indie rock circles as a whole, but even in their native Canada.
But Crossingham and his bandmates, bassist Scott Remila and drummer Dylan Green, remain unfazed by the continued lack of recognition outside a small cadre of fans and admiring critics, and continue to churn out album after pleasing album, and their latest, Sleight of Hand continues the band's graceful musical evolution, while at the same time displaying the audacity to toss a few new things into the mix. As opposed to the last two albums, which were painstakingly fussed over for lengthy periods, the new disc was recorded in a week, and with producer Ian Blurton at the helm, who brings his trademark robust rock sound to the proceedings, it has a much more immediate, urgent feel, while at the same time never shying away from the band's more introspective side.
More than anything, Sleight of Hand exudes a warmth that Raising the Fawn's often dour compositions have lacked. "River of Gold" opens with shimmering chords by Crossingham, and is soon joined by Remila's undulating, distorted synth notes serving as a bass line and Green's layered percussion (shaker, tambourine, and toms commingling hypnotically), enveloping the listener instead of confronting, the song capped off by Crossingham's tremendous tenor voice, which continues to be the trio's strongest asset. The pulsating "Roma/Amor" follows suit, driven this time by Remila's bass guitar and Green's robust backbeat, Crossingham adding abstract fills throughout the song and howling ominous, enigmatic lines like, "We've become policemen hired by thugs." Meanwhile, the gentle acoustic number "Two Wives" is one of Crossingham's prettiest songs to date, hinting that his future music might continue in this quieter direction.
Although the band's more immediate approach dominates the first half of the album, the second half has the trio settling back into their trademark comfort zone of lengthy, drawn-out arrangements, moody atmospherics, and moments of raw power, nicely captured on tape by the accomplished Blurton. "Cypress Fields" is alternately foreboding and ebullient, propelled by Green's nervous, stuttering beats, while the acoustic epic "The Cliffdivers" focuses on that emotive voice of Crossingham's, his melancholy yet unpretentious vocal melodies sounding comfortably familiar to those of us who have grown accustomed to Raising the Fawn over the last few years. The album concludes on a typically grandiose note with the eight and a half minute "A Lion in Winter", which follows the band's formula to a tee (languid pace, sumptuous vocals, richly layered production), but the band throws us a welcome curveball in the last three minutes, as the song suddenly launches into a lilting, upbeat pace, Crossingham's vocal melodies ascending, and capped off with a lively solo.
Sleight of Hand is still not without the odd blip or two, which makes us wonder just how rushed this album actually was. The awkward "Focusfocusfocus", with its sparse synth arrangement and falsetto vocals, is a jarring departure, carrying on for two minutes longer than it should. Junior Boys, this is not. Elsewhere, both the easygoing pop of "You Are the Enemy" and the thunderous percussion of "Palace Gates" are terrific, but are also far too brief, coming off as undeveloped song fragments. That said, those slight imperfections can't mar an otherwise strong effort by this consistently reliable band. Now if only those fans who flocked to Broken Social Scene's shows would do the same for this fine trio.