I have to give some credit to Rolling Stone. By naming The Dears one of the bands to watch in the coming year, they may have redeemed themselves of a handful of some of their past crimes. I may even be generous enough to extend this amnesty to their heinous top 100 or 500 lists that did nothing more than provoke arguments among readers and make advertisers froth at the mouth. Such deeds would seem unforgivable, but The Dears are just so damned good that Rolling Stone‘s acknowledgement of them lends the magazine some much-needed and well overdue cred. Though they might merely be the token Canadian group on the magazine’s annual watch list, RS could have easily picked safer choices like AC Newman or The Unicorns, two artists who have already earned their share of attention. But instead they went with the band that Pitchfork hadn’t already championed. Good for you, Rolling Stone.
Here’s to the underdog. Though why The Dears are the underdog is anyone’s guess. Their newest full-length, No Cities Left, has already been out in their native Canada for a year and has been met with glowing endorsements from Canadian publications. Stateside listeners, however, still have yet to be won over by the Montreal group. I can confidently say, however, that I, for one, am convinced.
No Cities Left is a gigantic record. It’s loud, emotional, affecting and powerful. It’s deep, layered, textured and complex. It’s intelligent, strong, innovative and compelling. In short, it’s a bloody amazing piece of music that outdoes every great British band at its own respective game, simultaneously. There are pieces of Radiohead, Pulp, Blur, Tindersticks, Portishead, Massive Attack, The Smiths and David Bowie. There are even shades of Isaac Hayes in some parts, and though I know he’s not British, neither are the Dears. So there.
Each Dears song is a mini-symphony, taking the listener through various movements and parts. Leadoff track “We Can Have It” begins subdued, with lead singer and songwriter Murray Lightburn offering up his woes through a soulful baritone:
“Last night all the horrible
Things in life stormed through my life and
I just want to shut it up
Shut it down and shut it out”
By the end of the lengthy first verse, the song abruptly transforms from simple ballad to 7/8 raveup, cramming an album’s worth of emotion and tension into a five-minute song. “Who Are You, Defenders of the Universe?” is much simpler, building upon a minor-key riff for three minutes, while single “Lost in the Plot” begins as a noisy, synth driven rock song that, again, changes into an entirely new song after just one verse and chorus.
These first three songs would lead you to believe that the band simply does a good job of appropriating Britpop, yet the next few tracks change everything around, entirely. “The Second Part” utilizes a simple, melancholy melody, whilst throwing in bad eighties clichés like saccharine saxophone and harmonized guitar solos. And yet, they come off magnificently, as the guitar solo is short and sweet and the sax is more Bernard Hermann than Huey Lewis. “Expect the Worst/’Cos She’s a Tourist” is a two-part epic, as the title suggests, the first half a manic, apocalyptic rock opera that climaxes into the second half, which is a smooth, sweet-ass trip-hop jam.
The second side offers even more surprises, like “Pinned Together, Falling Apart,” which sees the band re-writing “I Put a Spell on You” and the trippy “Warm and Sunny Days,” in which Lightburn sounds almost exactly like Blur’s Damon Albarn. It’s weird. You really ought to hear it. But “Never Destroy Us” is the album’s true standout. Sampled strings and a permutation of the guitar riff from Bowie’s “Andy Warhol” introduce the song before a smooth bassline and some Bacharachian horns start up. Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak duet, giving the song the Isaac Hayes, hot buttered soul sound I previously alluded to. But after the song climaxes into a stomping chant of “never destroy us,” the song ends with a bang, as it changes into full-on punk rock thrash, all band members chanting “again-start, again-start, again-start!”
Each of the tracks on No Cities Left contain pieces of other bands, though it’s hard to pin down one band that sounds consistently similar. The Dears’ sound is a unique amalgam of styles that sets the band apart and on a pedestal high above many of their contemporaries. The Dears are certainly a band you should be watching, as Rolling Stone suggested. But more importantly, you should be listening to them, over and over and over again.
Pulp – This is Hardcore
Radiohead – OK Computer
Tindersticks – Curtains
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.