What makes the Dears a cut above, a band that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its Canadian indie compatriots the New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene, is the voice of Murray Lightburn.
On the third track of the Dears' new album, Gang of Losers, lead singer Murray Lightburn pleads over and over again, "I swear, I swear, I swear to you". The band propels itself forward and Lightburn's voice croons and rises above it. It's a gorgeous moment in an album full of them. It also precisely illustrates what most critics nitpicked about the band on past albums. The full-throated voice of longing vaguely reminded some of Morrissey. The band's complex, bursting orchestral pop sound was a little too Brit-pop. The Dears were seen, at best, as providing a pleasing homage, and at worst as ineffectual copycats. This, coupled with the band's emergence from indie music's trend capital, Montreal, made the Dears a band that never was given enough credit for what they were able to accomplish.
And what they were able to accomplish was this: consistently beautiful and interesting pop songs. Their last album, 2003's No Cities Left , was filled to the brim with intricate songs featuring huge orchestras and the assembling of hundreds of instrumental tracks together. They still have that talent, but the band's mission on their third full-length release, the traditional "growth" album, is to tighten up the sound, to make it more urgent, more visceral, more like their great live shows.
To that end, the band has succeeded. Most of the songs on the album were recorded in one take. They're shorter and seem to hit with more force. The first full track, "Ticket to Immortality", shimmers and vibes. "Hate Then Love" brims with longing and has the soaring vocals that do justice to the Brit-pop comparisons. On "There Goes My Outfit", Lightburn sings the phrase "tapped phone calls from God" so right, with the "God" drawled just so perfectly. "You and I Are a Gang of Losers", an ostensible tribute to the band itself and its new solidified lineup, is another highlight.
The subject matter of the songs on the album vary greatly. On "Ballad of Humankindness", Lightburn sings about escaping poverty, stating, "I can't believe the vast amounts of people living on the streets / And I can't believe I was almost one of them and I almost died". It's blunt, but the emotion is heartfelt. He sings about fatherhood on "Ticket to Immortality". And "Whites Only Party" is a rumination on the issue of racism. This album gives the listener a little bit of everything.
But, in the end, what makes the Dears a cut above, a band that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its Canadian indie compatriots the New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene, is the voice of Lightburn. On the last song, "Find Our Way to Freedom", most of the band cuts out at the three minute mark, leaving the man's voice front and center. It is a voice of longing and regret and it is one of most gorgeous of the gorgeous moments on the album. Then the pop kicks back in and the band takes it home, a fitting end to one of the best albums of the year.