Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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The last time I talked about the Sunparlour Players, I mentioned something about how easy it was to jump into forced metaphors about the band's back story or the region that spurred their name. Well, in theory, none of those things have changed. You could focus on the proud farming tradition and warm southern breezes that describe the southern most part of Ontario or just as easily focus on lead vocalist, Andrew Penner, and talk about how he was raised a Mennonite and build on the stereotypical earnestness you’d expect to shine throughout the songs like it did on the standout Hymns for the Happy.
The thing is, Wave North marks such a huge growth for the Ontario trio, it will shock fans both old and new and shatter most of the easy jump off points reviewers search for. Sure, the elements are the same – banjo, guitar, kick drums, Penner’s unique vocal range – but they all sound bigger and more important. Even with the slowed pace of the opening track, North, the strums host an importance and over the next 12 songs, The Sunparlour Players unleash a collection of thicker arrangements. Producer Jeremy Backofen balances the sweat and emotion that earned the band a rabid fan base with a more professional, intricate sound perfectly. More importantly, he helps the band retain that succinct sound. Experimental? Yes. Wasted notes or confusion? No.
Horns and choral backing are obviously shocking (although they experimented with the latter before), but it’s the surging power the trio delivers that really knocks you back. Even the tender moments are accompanied with a tangible energy that makes you think the band could break into a sprint at any time. On Hymns for the Happy the band had two tempos - fast or slow - but now their control of pace and improved song writing allows for a constant mixing of the two. A few years ago, Nuclear would have ridden the simple picked banjo riff until the wave crashed, but now the 3+ minutes uses organ and tempo changes to hook the listener and the band nestles subtleties deep into the empty spaces.
Figure It Out is another classic ballad, but it seems more mature, more well thought out than anything on their last LP (which, keep in mind was terrific). You might be tempted to compare it to Pacifist’s Anthem - especially when you hear the familiar fret board squeaks - but instead of revealing each note on first pass, Figure it Out hides most of the textures just below the surface. The song unfolds slowly and it takes a few listens to really digest the whole track.
But without question, the biggest accomplishment of Wave North is how a "trio" can rise up and deliver inspired anthems like Point Pelee Is The Place To Be!, worthy of a place beside those penned by 9 and 10 member outfits, without losing any of the sincerity you expect from the Sunparlour Players. I read a press quote once that compared the band to Arcade Fire ... with more banjo and remember laughing. Well, with Wave North they make that writer look prophetic. PPitPtB is more than the fever pitch of John Had A Bell And A Whistle and more than another chance for fans to stomp a hole in the floor. Sure the kick drum that threatens to beat through your chest for the last minute of the song could wake the dead, but it’s the journey up to that point that is so remarkable. The pull the reigns tight at just the right time, gradually letting the song break into full stride.
It's exciting to see the changes the band have gone through. There is no doubt they will still deliver euphoric live shows, but now with a deeper catalog and an a better understanding of their sound, they show that over the next few years, we can expect a slew of consistent, action packed, rewarding records. The band was nice enough to let us offer up the first single - Battle of '77 - for you, so take a listen and start pinching pennies for the May 19th release.