I love it when bands I like release ìreturn-to-formî albums. Iím not
talking about albums that halfheartedly rehash tried and true formulas simply because the last albumís experiments failed (see Girls Against Boys). Iím talking about albums in which the band learns from the previous albumís mistakes, and uses these lessons to raise their new material to the quality of their best earlier works. Not only do these albums remind me why I liked the band in the first place, but they also give me a new perspective on the albums that initially disappointed me. You canít get back up without
falling first. Sonic Youthís return to melody on Murray Street
couldnít have happened if they didnít first stumble through the atonal grinding of NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Likewise, Canadian quintet North of Americaís fourth album Brothers, Sisters could not have been made if they didnít get their previous album This Is Dance Floor Numerology out of their system. Although by no means did Numerology suck, it was a slight lapse in the bandís otherwise stellar catalog. It was a phenomenally angry album almost entirely devoid of vocal melody. Granted, some of the songs were too dissonant to really sing along to, but the rest of the record sounded as if the band was either too angry or too lazy to do anything BUT shout. Not only that, but for the first time ever, North of Americaís attention deficit disorder got in the way of their arranging skills. They never sat still on an idea for too long, but on that album they occasionally discarded their good ideas too soon, while letting their bad ones linger longer than necessary.
Traces of the anger that fueled Numerology still remain on the new album. One of Brothers, Sistersí main lyrical themes is betrayal and dishonesty. ìAll Actors Are Liarsî finds a group of people getting collective revenge on the unscrupulous person who wronged them. ìVoting ëNoí on the Warming of Antarcticaî contains the couplet ìThey always said that they had our backs/Now we swing back against their attacks.î In the very next song, ìYes to Yes, Cursed to Cursed,î the antagonist in the lyrics is accused of having ìa talent for changing [his] look from picture to picture.î Last but not least, ìLetís Get Sick to Our Stomachsî is an admonition to those who just canít stop sipping Hater-Aid, climaxing in the mantra ìWe will not hate it when our friends become successful.î Overall, though, Brothers, Sisters functions as an album-length call to arms. The first song, ìKeep It on the Download,î paints a picture of a power failure during a storm: ìThere is ice on the ground and all the phones are downÖthe wire is a line until itís struck, and weíre going to strike it now.î Thereís chaos all around us, they seem to be saying, therefore take advantage of it and make something exciting happen! From the albumís title to the lyrics to the music itself, the band makes a strong plea for collective action. Such sentiments are expected from a band in which everyone take turns singing, and two of them switch guitar and drum duties depending on the song. The liner notes never specify who does what, giving no information about the band except their head shots and surnames. It doesnít really matter, though, because vocally, they all sound similar and instrumentally, they all manage to keep themselves busy without veering into ìsoloî territory. They frequently take turns singing or shouting from line to line, and occasionally the rest of the band does a sort of Greek chorus behind whoever happens to be singing lead. When the aforementioned couplet from ìAntarcticaî is sung, the rest of the bandís punctuation (ìNOW! WE! SWING! BACK!î) makes it sound like theyíre all really, truly about to kick someoneís ass.
Brothers, Sisters is a return to form in two ways. First of all, the band has finally started singing again. This is indie-rock, so you know that none of them have the kind of voice that would land them on American Idol. However, the bandís decision to reintegrate vocal melody into their sound makes their songs much more accessible, and will keep listeners from getting exhausted over the course of a full-length. Secondly, North of America have managed to make their songs longer and less boring by both trimming away excess jamming and letting their hooks repeat more than once. The band also keeps its songs interesting by adding keyboards and female vocals (a first for the band) at exactly the right moments. Some people may complain that the band isnít really doing anything new on this album. However, anyone who reads my reviews knows that originality isnít necessary for me to like a band. North of America does indie-rock so well that I hope they NEVER get out of their back-to-1996 time warp. ìThe Fix Is Inî is the best song that the Archers of Loaf never wrote, and ìDonít Ask Me How I Did It (Iím a Young Turk)î crams the best ideas of every decent Chicago ìpost-rockî band into one song. Last but not least, for a band that is so often compared to Pavement, North of Americaís lyrics are much more literal and emotional than one would expect. Album closer ìLetís Get Tightî finds the band in a tug-of-war between optimism and desperation. One person sings on the chorus, ìRecognize that this is our last chance,î while another rebuts, ìBut it all comes back!î The albumís final command also happens to be its most direct: ìSing and dance with abandon --- discard pretension!î Could you EVER hear those words coming out of Stephen Malkmusí mouth?