In an alternate universe, Brian Wilson didn’t write timeless pop songs, but instead toiled over dirge-like psychedelic masterpieces brimming with colossal guitars and saccharine harmonies. So maybe the scenario is a little unlikely, but it’s something Montreal’s The Besnard Lakes have envisioned with their second album, The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse. It probably helps that frontman Jace Lasek (whose production credits include Islands, Sunset Rubdown, Stars, and “saving” Wolf Parade’s debut Apologies To The Queen Mary with his meticulous touch) had free reign of Breakglass Studios in his hometown to record the album. Although he’s humbly denied it in interviews, Lasek is a stickler for details, and nowhere is it more apparent than on his band’s latest.
I’ve been to Montreal, once, in the summer. Even then, it was pouring down rain. Montreal’s winter ice storms are nearly legendary, and hearing fellow denizen Win Butler sing plenty about “snow tunnels” is enough to convince me of the role weather plays in inspiring the artistic talents of its inhabitants. Just as the endless summers of southern California gave Brian Wilson all the fodder he needed to sing about convertibles and sandy beaches, so too has the frozen North influenced the sprawling arrangements of Lasek and crew. Dark Horse employs the sort of cold distance to its expansive atmosphere that leaves you breathing vapor clouds before you can even step out the front door. But it’s the Beach Boys inspired vocal harmonies and Roy Orbison-worthy reverb that pulls the listener inevitably closer to their massive sound.
The Besnard Lakes are the first band in a long while to actually earn the oft-flouted tag of `epic.’ Songs build, linger, and fizzle out before launching into an endless canopy of guitar distortion. It’s like being under a star-lit Montana sky…on peyote. Opener “Disaster” is a bit misleading, with sparse acoustic plucks and soft trumpets as intro. It takes an orchestra of strings to invoke the crashing reverb and the harmonizing pleas of “Baby, come on” that elevate the song to lofty heights. There is a definite progression on each track; “For Agent 13” introduces a droning organ and piano before colliding midway through with reverberating drums and glockenspiel. Each song has a very deliberate arc, and an always satisfying crescendo. It’s like listening to “White Rabbit” in the bathtub and having the radio thrown in the water, and living to tell about it.
The excellent “And You Lied To Me” seems short at over seven minutes long, and the chill-inducing synchronous guitar work is reminiscent of Pink Floyd in their glory days in the ’70s. Good luck trying to count the stacked vocals in “Devastation,” a droner that somehow sounds, I don’t know, gospel? You keep expecting the chorus to exclaim “salvation,” but instead you’re treated with a very contrary “devastation.” The tambourine shuffle and dark keyboard that open “Ride The Rails” soon give way to weepy violins, and with a quick switch of the knob up to “11,” the song transforms into a full-fledged rocker.
In only eight solid tracks, The Besnard Lakes have established a sound equally immense as it is intimate. With the kind of guitar distortion to please fans of shoegazer, and ample reverb for all you traditional types, Are The Dark Horse has something for everyone. If the album at times seems overwhelming, well, that’s because it is, with something new to be discovered with each listen. If our friends from the North can teach us anything about the great expanse of land they call home, it’s that the music it inspires can be just as far reaching, and given the right touch from a studio perfectionist, damn beautiful.
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MP3: “And You Lied to Me”