Welcoming back the Dears

Sometimes in rock and roll you have to destroy everything and rebuild it anew. Based on the interviews that frontman Murray Lightburn has done in recent weeks, Gang of Losers and its ensuing tour destroyed the Dears. Which is fitting, since that record destroyed my esteem for the band alongside.

I made clear my esteem for the band in 2006, but I also expressed doubts about my first listen of several tracks from Losers:

…there’s something about the mixing that doesn’t sit right with me…the files that I have never slap me in the face with awesome. On older songs like “Lost in the Plot” or “22: The Death of the Romance,” the intensity of the band comes across far better because the music is fleshed out in a glorious cavalcade of sound, not buried like on the new album. These just come across as good pop songs, lacking in the colour that they should have.

I hoped that my first impression would improve on subsequent listens; instead, it only intensified. The problem is that Murray Lightburn writes good songs but not great ones – the trick is all in the delivery. On No Cities Left and the truly excellent Protest EP, the intensity of the performance is matched by the depth of the soundscapes. Without the sonic melodrama to support Lightburn’s heart-on-sleeve vocals, the whole thing just feels flat and lifeless.

The Globe and Mail profile on the band last week sheds some light on what might have gone wrong: the album was recorded quickly, moreso than any other Dears record, and came right between two grueling tours that wrecked the band’s morale. In an attempt to ride the Montreal indie rock wave, the band toured far past the breaking point of sanity. And by 2007, the Dears as I knew them – the band that blew my mind with their concerts more than once – ceased to exist.

I’m always a bit leery when bands badmouth their previous record in interviews – it often feels like a forced attempt to reassure listeners – but I was clearly a receptive audience for such talk in this case. But I was even more impressed to find “The Gospel According to the Dears” on the band’s website, which they describe as follows:

WE ARE ATTEMPTING TO COMPILE AND TELL THE ENTIRE 13 YEAR STORY OF THE DEARS THROUGH INTERVIEWS, LIVE FOOTAGE, PHOTOGRAPHS, MEMORIES. WE ARE NOT SURE IF THIS IS A MISTAKE, YET ANOTHER HORRIBLE MISTAKE. WE’LL SEE. YOU’LL SEE. MILD INTENTIONAL/UNINTENTIONAL HUMOR AND A RIDICULOUS, WE MEAN, RIDICULOUS AMOUNTS OF SWEARING. AT ANY RATE, IT WAS EITHER THIS OR COUNSELING.

The first episode, “Disclaimer” (part one, part two) feels a bit too much like “let’s hype the new record,” but the groundwork is laid for something really interesting, not the least of which is the fact that there are actually former band members interviewed and speaking quite honestly about their experiences.

But nothing earns back goodwill like the product itself, and I’m pleased to report that my first impressions of Missiles, the band’s fourth full-length record, are a world apart from the ones I had two years ago. Ironically, it’s probably their least-accessible album – it’s slow, patient, uninterested in instant gratification. But unlike Losers, which was the songs and nothing more, Missiles has a vibe, a feeling, a mood. For the first time in years, the Dears – of which Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak are the only returning members – have created a record that feels both alive and lived in.

A rebirth, if you will.

Watch: The Dears – “Money Babies” (music video)

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