Montreal’s the Stills were once touted as Canada’s answer to Interpol with the release of their debut album, Logic Will Break Your Heart. While some praised its dark and dreary artistic leanings, others seemed to think it would get lost in the crowd of like-minded acts, which at that point were a dime a dozen. The truth lies somewhere in between with the album finding its place in the hearts of some and the bargain bins of others. As for myself, I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad album in my opinion, merely one that wasn’t immediately arresting or impressive. Years later, I can’t place any of the songs back into my brain for a memory replay. And maybe that’s ultimately what is the true marker of a great pop album. Give me one title of a song from Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and all of its nuances spring immediately to mind. Not so with Logic Will Break Your Heart, at least for me. So, when I found out that guitarist Greg Paquet was no longer a Stills member, that drummer Dave Hamelin became the new guitarist and lead vocalist, emerging as one of the band’s principal songwriters, that they added a new keyboardist in Liam O’Neil and that all of this created a new direction for the band, I was more than intrigued to hear the result. Without Feathers, the “departure” record for the Stills, marks a step in the right direction towards the realm of memorable songs.
“In the Beginning,” the opening track on the album, is the perfect way to start this new direction. The song acts as somewhat of a look back for the band and their inception. But vocalist Dave Hamelin, singing his own words, echoes my thoughts about the history of the band when he sings, “It’s nice to see you’re moving on.” One can tell right off the bat that this is a brand new Stills, one steeped in classic rock composition, including the organic keyboards that resemble those of their countrymen the Band. This first song sounds as if the Heartbreakers were covering Slade. The dramatic flourishes and build-ups in “The Mountain” make it one of the standouts on the album, as you can feel the tension in the chorus of “Wait, we’ve been told to wait.” Tim Fletcher returns to the microphone on “Helicopters,” a song more similar stylistically to their debut album. Again, particular lines can lend toward the experience of the new sound, such as “wait them out ’til this tundra freezes.” Without Feathers certainly has a much warmer sound than those of their frigid contemporaries. Add to that images of flowers on fire in the liner notes and lyrical nods to fire and you start to get the picture.
“In the End” laments a breakup and the move of a former lover successfully. O’Neil’s mournful keys (on three different instruments) propel this beautiful dirge as Hamelin posits the memorable chorus, describing his love as “young and plain.” “Oh Shoplifter” is a cacophony of different sounds as Canada presents a “the gang’s all here” collection of talent with guest appearances by Sam Roberts, Melissa Auf der Maur and a host of others. The song refers to someone who stole the singer’s love from him, returning to the theme of lost love. These aren’t the only guests on the album however. As is what I would guess is now Canadian law, members of Broken Social Scene also appear. Kevin Drew adds vocals to “She’s Walking Out” while Evan Cranley adds trombone to both “It Takes Time” and “Destroyer.” BSS and Metric member Emily Haines, herself coming out with a solo album soon, performs a duet with Hamelin on “Baby Blues,” definitely one of the poppier songs on the record and features one of the best lyrics in “I’m into looks but I’m also into books.” Fletcher adds two more of his own tracks in “Outro” and “Halo the Harpoon,” the latter sounding like Spoon with its bouncy piano notes. The aforementioned “It Takes Time” is one of the most memorable on the album with its striking horns and repeated line, “You can talk your way out.” Closing track “The House We Live In” is another memorable one, mostly thanks to O’Neil’s Hammond and Farfisa organs.
While arty post-punk kids might lament the big changes in the Stills, now an ironic name, hopefully others will now discover what I have, a band that has found new footing and a bold new direction. This is undoubtedly now Dave Hamelin’s band as he wrote and fronts a majority of the songs on the record. Hamelin has propelled the Stills into a more organic classic rock territory; one in which fellow Canadians Jason Collett and Sam Roberts have also found themselves successful. I don’t know if I could have handled another dark, bass heavy, staccato guitar art wank, so thank you Stills for changing it up a bit.