Vancouver band Young and Sexy's new album, Life Through One Speaker, gets off to such a disjointed, clunky start that you're immediately taken aback by how strange it sounds. The beginning of "Oh My Love" is incredibly awkward, like two kids knocking their teeth together when they nervously try to kiss. It's a strange, homely way to start an album: an insistently strummed acoustic guitar, haphazardly punctuated after one bar by snare and piano. But then that organ comes in, with its sustained note, settling things down, as the band sounds like they've decided to start over, the bass gently thrumming, toms being thudded with more subtlety than exhibited in that ugly intro. Then a bewitching female voice comes in, and the guitar re-enters, building up to a chorus that would make the angels weep, nothing but overdubbed harmony vocals singing "Oh, my love," over and over again, the drums providing an urgent, insistent beat, like the racing pulses of those two kids, who have finally figured out how to get it right, before segueing into an ethereal coda in its last minute and a half. One of the prettiest, most superbly crafted love songs of the year, it comes in from out of nowhere and bowls you over.
2003 has been an astonishingly strong year for Canadian indie rock. Hot Hot Heat, Broken Social Scene, and Manitoba have led the way in hipster circles, garnering plenty of attention south of the border, but it doesn't end there. The New Pornographers, Tangiers, the Dears, the Constantines, the Stills, and the Buttless Chaps have all put out notable albums in recent months, in what has to be regarded as a real renaissance, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that most of the best Canadian music acts all work outside the major label system (okay, Hot Hot Heat are now on a big label). It's young and sexy, though, with their facetious, lowercase moniker, and their relaxed, breezy brand of twee pop, who really emerge as one of the best bands their country has to offer.
Young and Sexy have toured with the New Pornographers in the past, but unlike their fellow Vancouverites, who go for instant pop gratification each time, young and sexy opt for the slow simmer instead. They don't wave the pop hooks around like five-year-olds with sparklers; they let the hooks burn more subtly. Life Through One Speaker is more understated (it was co-produced by Dave Carswell and New Pornographers bassist John Collins), with the focus on organ and electric piano, as singers Lucy Brain and Paul Hixon Pittman alternate lead vocals, their sumptuous give-and-take sounding absolutely seductive. Nowhere does this vocal pairing work better than on the languid "Weekend Warriors", as Pittman and Brain sing sympathetically about being caught between teen life and adulthood ("You're old and bitter, just out of your teens / But you're out of dreams / A diamond is too soft to cut through to your heart"), as the song climaxes in a warm tidal wave of soaring vocal harmonies.
It's not all introspective melodrama on this album, and the band prove they can easily pull off louder, more upbeat pop rock. "Herculean Bellboy" is a straight Cars tribute, with its irresistible synth line, and the charming lyrics about a lonely male hipster protagonist ("He likes the rock and roll sounds of anything pre-1984 / He turns the MTV on and questions the taste of the human race"), mixed with the fun chorus ("Herculeeee-aaaan!"), makes for a shamelessly fun blast of retro pop. "One False Move" begins with airy synths and a gentle, bouncing beat, a very pretty tune, but then shifts gears two minutes in, becoming a raucous, loud, charging, garage rock song for the rest of its four minutes, equaling the most effervescent moments by the New Pornographers.
This album just has so much going for itself, its abundance of sublime moments providing an embarrassment of riches. There's the '70s West Coast vibe of "Life Through One Speaker", and the absolutely gorgeous ballad "More Than I Can Say", during which Brain makes the strangely graphic line "America wraps me in her bloody armor" sound oddly sweet. "In This Atmosphere" boasts more of a shoegazer sound, with its droning guitars that crash through your speakers, while Pittman's acoustic solo turn on "Ella" is reminiscent of latter-day John Lennon.
"We're not gonna grace the cover of Elle", sings Pittman on "Young & Sexy". That may be true, but this band's pure, lush melodies are much more entrancing than any airbrushed photo of this week's It girl could ever be. An innocuous charmer, this album is as pretty as anything you'll hear these days.