Review Summary: Love child of Sufjan Stevens and Tom Waits....
There has been a worrying trend in alternative music in recent years... Choirs.... There used to be a time when choirs were a fixture of emotionally wrought ballads especially at the soaring chorus where the listener is suppose to feel spiritually uplifted and the joy or heart break of the hackneyed lyrics sung by some soulless and pro tools polished voice.
Choirs seem to be very much in vogue. Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers (on their new album Postcards From a young Man) have featured choirs on songs, Hell even Nick Cave used a choir for his double album opus Abattoir/Lyre. I guess we can blame Polyphonic Spree for this trend. Polyphonic Spree even had the gall to make a choir a permanent fixture in their band. Another band that comes complete with a choir is Bruce Peninsula. However what sets Bruce Peninsula apart is one very important thing... restraint. In fact the band whose numbers may vary from 11 to 14 at any given time, (only 5 of whom play actual instruments) carefully pick their moments to fully flex their vocal skills. For the most part the choir of 6 to 9 members act as counter balance to lead singer and guitarist Neil Haverty gruff weathered voice or as a perfect foil to lead choir member Misha Bower who sings lead "Weave Myself a Dress" and "Drinking all day". Over the course of their debut the band's music references the Alan Lomax folk archives, gospel, folk and slavery work songs and manages to present these familiar sounds in way that sounds fresh and new and completely different to their other indie folk contemporaries. eg. Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons.
Opening track Inside/ Outside sets the album up perfectly. Opening with the low hum of a female choir and chimes of a metallophone and percussion that slowly builds over a minute before Neil Neil Haverty's gruff voice sings "guess you don't have to go out if you really don't want to" to which the choir replies "go out". For the most part in the song as with the entire album it is the vocals and choral harmonies that are the main focus of the song as opposed to instrumentation which for the most part is sparse and really only noticeable at key moments. This is a brave move and wouldn't work if it were not the strength of the harmonies and vocals. The song continues to build over three minutes with little more than choir harmonies and Haverty's vocals before song quickly shifts pace to become an urge folk-blues stomp. It's a breathtaking change and one the band pulls off effortlessly. Just as the song reaches it climax it ends. Steamroller is more faster pace than the opening track and slows down in the bridge briefly before building up pace again. The highlight of 2nd 4th World War with Johny Cash freight train sound which flows into the call and response of the one minute Satisfied which is little than vocals and percussion and hand claps. This technique the band use again Crab apples. Shutters stripped of its vocals would have fitted perfectly on Dirty Three's classic album "She has no strings Apollo" and even features a violin at the climax that Warren Ellis would be proud of. Misha Bower takes lead vocals on "Weave myself a dress" an acoustic country folk track and hopefully in subsequent Bruce Peninsula releases she will take lead vocal duties more often. Weave myself a dress is the most uplifting song on the album building to a sweet choral sing along before the song flows into the urge marching band percussion and call and response of Crab apples. All the separate elements of album seem to culminate in Shanty Song, with marching band style drumming, extended choral parts, walls of vocal harmonies and use of chimes. The music builds and builds to a wall of sound before it abruptly stops leaving only a lone banjo and some eerie background harmonies and Misha Bower's voice singing lowly as the song slowly becomes Drinking all day. Northbound/ Southbound is all too brief barely finding its feet before it ends leaving the listener hunger for more.
Bruce Peninsula have managed to take old ideas and concepts and dress them up a new. Much of the album is based on build ups and contrasts between quiet and loud moments. To the band's credit they find different ways of presenting these changes in each song. "A mountain is a mouth" stands alone from almost anything else in mainstream music at the moment. It is not quiet a classic but more than a hints of greatness to yet come. Bruce Peninsula have found their collective voices on their debut. Whether or not they can build upon and evolve sound they have created while still retaining the elements that have made this album so breathtaking and enjoyable remains to be seen. Either way Canada's best kept musical secret is definitely a band to watch.
Live songs below