If you grew up in Guelph, Ontario there’s a pretty fair chance you already know all about Royal City, whose lo-fi, country-tinged B-sides collection Royal City was just released by Asthmatic Kitty. Readers who aren’t as familiar with Canada’s most populous province and its music scene might be less acquainted with the band, but its members have gone on to be part of Islands and Human Highway, and while Royal City may have missed the freight train that brought countrymen like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade to ear buds all over America, sometimes it’s worth a brief look backward.
“Brief” is a good word to describe this collection, as is “sparse.” The songs are mostly finger picked or gently strummed acoustic tracks accompanied by a simple brushed snare. Rousing opener “Here Comes Success” and the blues inflected “Bad Luck” pick up the pace a little, but nothing gets any heavier than the average Okkervil River song. This is bedroom music, with four-track hissing to prove it.
B-side collections can be a dicey prospect. Sometimes they’re legitimately full of gems that show off the depth of a band’s talent. Other times they’re a reminder that there’s a reason the songs on the albums were chosen in the first place, and Royal City mostly proves Royal City’s consistency. The songs sound similar to, if less polished than the tracks on the three albums the group released from 2000 to 2004. There is the requisite quirky cover (in this case a back porch, slow dance version of The Strokes’ “Is this It?”) but other than that, these tracks would have fit in on any of Royal City’s other albums.
The sound could be considered “Americana,” considering lap steel and harmonica both make appearances, but the four man line up of singer/guitarist Aaron Riches, guitarist Jim Guthrie, bassist Simon Osborne, early drummer Nathan Lawr and later drummer Lonnie James keeps the sound classic and rustic. It’s more Silver Jews than Calexico. And lest anyone wonder about the authenticity of Canadian Americana, Canada is a North American country.
It’s probably worth a mention that Asthmatic Kitty put together this B-side collection with some input from label poster boy Sufjan Stevens. He hosted the band’s first New York show in his living room in 2003 and collaborated with the group, as has Feist, Final Fantasy and others. Aside from the occasional banjo though, there’s little of Stevens’ influence here.
One of Royal City‘s prettiest tracks is “I Called But You were Sleeping,” the lament of the one left behind while a loved one is off in another time zone. “You are always five feet under / And 10,000 miles away from me / You are always five feet under / While I’m so terribly here,” Riches whispers, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar (whether his own or Guthrie’s its hard to tell) and a tinkling glockenspiel. It’s a lullaby masquerading as sad white boy music.
Riches’ voice falls in and out of key on a lot of tracks, his youth spent in hardcore bands apparent as he seems more comfortable shouting the verses of the band’s more upbeat tunes. The warbling would be more annoying if he didn’t manage to strike a good balance between earnestness and perspective, but there are a few tunes that a stronger vocal would have improved, such as “They Come Down.” Coming right on the heels of “I Called But You were Sleeping,” the slow and steady beat and repetitive riff of “They Come Down” falls a little flat. A stronger tenor like a Ben Gibbard could have saved it. But then on songs like, “O You with your Skirt,” another of Royal City‘s stronger tracks, when the whole band is playing and Riches sings about an old love, the dips and pitches of his voice give the song an airier, easy going feel, warding off the self pity that is the curse of so many a sensitive young man.
It’s not shocking that Royal City never caught on stateside, like some of Canada’s other indie acts, but its also easy to see why there were local favorites in their native country. They’re not the kind of band that would make a lot of top ten lists, but one you could put in your stereo on a quiet Sunday afternoon and never need to change it. There’s never a bad time to introduce a new audience to an old favorite.
Bright Eyes and Son Ambulance – Oh Holy Fools
Hem – Eveningland
Silver Jews – Starlite Walker