Where Night Holds Light eschews novelty for soft pop/rock leanings. Occasionally, it works, too.
I have to admit, it does add something of a sense of completeness to an album when its title matches the music that it contains so perfectly that the listener couldn't possibly imagine bestowing upon that album a different name. Where Night Holds Light is the newest album from Vancouver-based four-piece the Buttless Chaps, and it sacrifices the joy and exuberance of much of the band's past work for the sake of songs that live in the shadows, looking for the titular light. The result is something that will likely make the Chaps' fans ecstatic with joy, but may leave listeners looking for something new and different a little cold.
The Buttless Chaps, despite having a name only a member of the band could love, have to this point created some of the most inventive music to come out of Canada, an independent band in every sense of the word. They're just as willing to put bluegrass banjo in a song as they are to put new wave synths, even making a habit of putting both of them in the same song. Rather than let such an approach trap them into a rut of new wave country, however, they've always used the approach as an open door, a way to let their silliest ideas come to fruition in ways both musically exciting and strangely catchy -- no small feat when the lyrics are as literate and intelligently constructed as the Chaps'. The release of a new Buttless Chaps album is something of an event, as it's always worth at least a curious glance as to the musical terrain that the album will cover.
As such, the quiet sound and reserved feel of Where Night Holds Light is a little jarring -- sure, some of the Chaps' trademarked brand of left turns are seen here, as on the mariachi-esque trumpeting of "Blanket of Pain" and the swirls of synth noise that punctuate the title track, but for the most part, this is a quiet, sensitive indie-pop-rock album with lots of different instruments. It sounds a bit like Crash Test Dummies, to be honest, though that may likely be due to lead vocalist Ida Nilsen's plaintive, baritone vocal style. Not even the Rheostatics' über-eclectic Martin Tielli can break the band's insistence on quiet, as the six-minute "Cornered and Jaded" feature his guitars and backing vocals, but still comes off as a nondescript soft-rock tune that lasts just a little longer than it needs to. That, too, is a problem found in many of the songs on the album -- songs like "Cornered and Jaded", "Movements", and "Insects" simply don't have enough ideas to sustain five-minute-plus running times. In fact, were it not for the lyrics, they would be instantly forgettable.
Fortunately, those lyrics prove to be the saving grace of Where Night Holds Light. "Migratory Birds", a song that distinguishes itself musically via a surprisingly subtle mix of Depeche Mode and the Cure, features a lovely landscape of a verse: "I long for a cabin and a lack of masses / Warm wind, tall grasses / 'Mongst a sprawl of pines / Away from the runnin' pipes". "The anatomy and behaviours are explained / Our lives are replete with endless details / Preserve and mount your collection", Nilsen sings in "Insects", finding a common metaphor for the sprawling nature of humankind while expressing it in words that make that metaphor seem worthy of further exploration. That's just his way with words. Never does he come off as particularly pretentious; rather, he comes off as an intelligent everyman, never condescending, but never insulting his audience's intelligence, either. If there's a reason to listen to Where Night Holds Light, it's as a clinic in smart, well-crafted lyric-writing.
Unfortunately, lyrics alone do not make an album. Despite the best efforts of the aforementioned "Migratory Birds" and the rather incredible title track (which itself starts like a typical soft-rock song with extra synths, but turns into a joyous journey of quick beats and skittery synths), Where Night Holds Light simply doesn't live up to the high standard set by its predecessors. It's probably an album that needed to happen, as it's an album that does succeed in proving that there's more to the Buttless Chaps than a novelty-leaning insistence on clever instrumental juxtaposition, and as such, it's very likely to be treasured by those already taken with the Chaps. Everyone else will listen, wonder what the big deal is, and move on.
The Buttless Chaps - Where Night Holds Light