Print Edition: March 12, 2014
Judging by the cover art, this album could be anything: four men with long hair man stand with their instruments, looking like someone has told them to pose for a photograph after a long night of drinking and good-natured shenanigans. Two wear winter hats, and one is in a bathrobe. The room is festooned with taxidermied animals, lit in warm earth tones, and despite the odd assortment of details, looks cozy. This cover could belong to any genre; are we in for rock? Metal? Indie? One of those odd lumps in the corner of the room could be an accordion — are we in for polka? I have no idea.
It turns out Bend Sinister isn’t too sure either; the band seems to pick its favourite elements from any old genre it fancies and stitch them together, which becomes abundantly clear in the opening track.
“Best of You,” sets the stage with rhythmic bare piano and the background synths you’d expect in a space film. Are we in for a power ballad? Screaming guitar joins the synth and piano. It appears we are, indeed, in for a power ballad. The listener holds their breath. What’s next? We half-expect Freddy Mercury to make an appearance, so much so that when the vocalist pops in, it does sound like a Queen b-side for a second. Better buckle up: it looks like we might be in for a rock opera.
But suddenly — and oddly — the song changes completely, as though it’s a teenager unhappy with its outfit. We find ourselves in the brief and happy throes of a pop song, and the result is off-putting. Bend Sinister has a firm handle on both styles, but to butt them up against each other in the same song detracts from each and does a disservice to both. The power ballad characteristics eventually sneak back in, but the combination is still less than satisfying. We’ve heard the purity of both styles done well, and now mixing them together feels lukewarm at best.
After this calamity of odd style-mixing in the first track, Bend Sinister seems to sort out its genre-bending. They still incorporate a surprising number of genres, but the sudden shifts are saved for the breaks between songs rather than cluttering up individual tracks with markedly different ideas.
The second track, “Fancy Pants,” is one of the home-runs of the album: it starts out sunnily cheerful and is guaranteed to get feet tapping with jaunty piano and a steady drum beat. A snatch of trumpet and hand-clapping appear in time for the second chorus, forming the perfect soundtrack for a dance break.
“I Got Love” is another winner, and could be a track from Grease — cheerfully gritty and jazzed with an insistent bass. Finally, the power guitar has found a loving home. The cherry on the cake is a brief snatch of gospel-style chorus, although I could do without the accompanying organ solo.
My favourite song on the album by far is “Better Things to Do.” It hums along from the very beginning, anchored by a lovely meandering note in the repeating chorus. “We both had better things to do-oo-oo-oo,” he croons between verses, an easy-going anthem with a subtext of que sera, sera. We follow the story of protagonist and the just-out-of-reach girl with bated breath. Perhaps by the end of the song, neither of them will have better things to do and they’ll finally be happy.
“Thunder and Lightning,” “Teacher,” and “Seventeen” all pass in a blur of power rock before we get to “You Remind Me,” which keeps the insistent kick drum and humming guitar going, both winning features, and also returns the focus to vocals and harmonies for brilliantly catchy results.
“Through the Week” also skips the roaring guitar in favour of a softer start, which works beautifully and highlights the fact that Bend Sinister is most successful when it sticks to the basics: soft piano, soft vocals, haunting harmonies, and simple lyrics that appeal to anyone who’s chased a girl or suffered through a broken heart.
All in all, pulling elements from a variety of genres to season the songs works well, but the few tunes that try for an equal hybrid fall flat. Just the right amount of power ballad seasoning gives this album a taste of gumption, the same way a red flower stands out in the lapel of a dark suit. But just because you can pull out a power rock guitar and growling tenor doesn’t mean you should, and this is something Bend Sinister would do well to remember for the future.