Canada has always had a lot to offer its American neighbors, especially in terms of music. Its contributions have been varied, to say the least — from Barenaked Ladies to Our Lady Peace. However, there seems to be one commonality that spans across most Canuck musicians: They just can’t imitate the red-blooded American sound. This isn’t necessarily a weakness — developing a collective cultural vibe is difficult, and Canadian bands frequently succeed in their own respective ways — but often, the music lacks the raw, even vulnerable American disposition. Take, for example, the Weakerthans: The music is sensitive and sentimental, but never matches the yearning of the Decemberists or the quiet retrospection of the Shins. It’s just not quite the same.
Enter the Dears. The band hails from French-Canadian Montreal and astonishingly breaks from the footsteps of its predecessors. Its latest release, Degeneration Street, plays like a TV on the Radio album that forgoes electronic noise for real instrumentation. The guitars are brisk and the drums crisp, but the real accomplishment is the record’s soulful triumph of unique style. There’s rarely a dull moment as the indie rockers take twists that rival those of the Amazon but flow like the Nile.
The album generates much of its rhythm from singer Murray Lightburn (who has garnered comparisons from the Canadian press — including Toronto’s Now Magazine — as a “Black Morrissey”). He opens Degeneration Street with the falsetto-heavy single “Omega Dog,” imbuing it with soul and shades of funk. Lightburn barely delves into the higher octaves after the first track, but “Omega Dog” proves that he has more than the capability to do so. On “Yesteryear,” the lead singer infuses a happy-go-lucky mentality to accompany a swinging tambourine beat and a bright xylophone. Even in just these two tracks, it’s clear that Lightburn is the centerpiece of the Dears, and he fulfills the role with expertise.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Degeneration Street is its ability to navigate between distinct moods and temperaments without feeling choppy or divided. After the two upbeat opening tracks, “Blood” begins with a haunting acoustic riff that sets in motion what is the best song on the album. Even as “Blood” becomes amped-up and electrified, it never loses the unsettling edge that creates an ideal balance with Lightburn’s pure vocals. The ensuing “Thrones” sounds like a Smiths cover strained through a 21st century sieve, resulting in a song that is both melancholic and optimistically hopeful. However, in spite of the differences between the tracks, they’re perfectly arranged to provide a healthy contrast to each other’s atmospheres.
The title track rounds out the album as its finale, and is the perfect summation of a work that ceaselessly tries to deviate from the norm. “I heard there’s no rest for the wicked,” cries Lightburn, “So I won’t be sleeping when I’m dead.” The lyrics are backed by a slow, thumping bass drum that mimics the beat of a heart with uncanny exactness. Degeneration Street is all about the finer details: the clever wordplay that might fall through the cracks to the less observant, the odd instrument that brings that extra something to a track and the imperceptible effects that give every song its own distinguishable mood. The album is all over the place, but the execution and skill involved make the variation all the more agreeable. Degeneration Street succeeds, regardless of the tone or atmosphere — as each one is employed, it’s effectively mastered.